(photo courtesy of CAPT Royce Williams)
Captain E. Royce Williams grew up in the small rural town of Clinton, Minnesota. He got a taste of the military life in high school by becoming a corporal in the Minnesota Guard. He recalls living through the depressing years of the Great Depression and hearing his mother and father whisper with worry about keeping food on the table. Scarcity became a way of life, and Royce’s parents often admonished him to be frugal and stay alert—the latter to ensure he did not make mistakes that could cost them money they did not have. Royce learned early on to listen to and respect his elders, and to remain humble and teachable. Doing so helped save his life many years later when the bullets started flying.
Royce enlisted in the Navy in August 1943 and attended flight school in Pensacola, Florida. He earned his wings in November 1945 and flew various propeller-driven aircraft until his need for speed was assuaged when the Navy handed him the keys to a modern jet fighter. During the Korean War, Royce was assigned to Navy Fighter Squadron 781 and flew F9F-5 Panther jets off the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. His missions included combat operations over North Korea to thwart attacks against the South Koreans.
“We strafed a lot of ground targets and conducted close air support missions,” said Royce. “We blasted ground troops and weapons platforms but never had any dogfights because the North Koreans didn’t have much of an air force. We knew the Soviets were helping them and were flying some MiG-15s in the area, but we’d never seen any.”
Royce and the three other Panthers in his section launched from the Oriskany and climbed toward the clouds at around one in the afternoon. They broke through the grey cover and found clear skies above 12,000 feet. The sun glinted off Royce’s canopy and splashed beams of yellow that flickered across a clear blue backdrop.
“My radio lit up with an excited voice,” said Royce, “The radar controller on the Oriskany blurted out a frantic report. They had spotted several bogies only eighty-three miles north of us and the bad guys were on a direct course for the carrier.”
Royce and his team were ordered to intercept and repel. They ascended to 16,000 feet and scanned the horizon. Nothing. Royce looked up and down and craned his neck in a circle. Still nothing. He started to wonder if the radar contact had been a false-positive signal. He glanced upward again and spotted the smoky contrails of jet fighters. Seven of them. His adrenaline surged. Then his heart raced when he saw rays of sunlight glitter off the sides of seven silver-shiny Soviet MiG-15s. They were high above him at about 35,000 feet.
“I knew that MiG-15s were faster and more maneuverable than our Panthers,” said Royce. “I was really hoping we could scare them off because I didn’t think we’d survive a head-to-head dogfight. Especially if they were being flown by experienced Soviet pilots.”
Royce’s radio crackled again. He heard his flight leader, LT Elwood, call down to the Oriskany and report that his Fuel Pump Warning Light was on. A radio operator in the Combat Information Center (CIC) on the carrier gave Elwood a green light to return to the Oriskany. Elwood handed off command to Royce and descended back through the cloud cover. Royce acknowledged and turned his head to the left. He saw the outline of another Panther as it banked and followed Elwood downward. He knew that LTJG Middleton, Elwood’s wingman, was obligated to stay with his boss and also return to the carrier.
“I felt my heart flutter,” said Royce. “I suddenly realized that if things turned hot, the odds had just dropped from four against seven to only two against seven.”
Royce glanced to his right. From the cockpit of another Panther, wingman LTJG Rowland flashed him an okay sign. Royce looked upward as the seven MiGs screamed overhead and made an about face to head back toward Vladivostok. He breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the Soviets were heading home.
The MiGs had closed to within forty-five miles of the Oriskany, well inside the threat zone, before heading away. Not wanting to take any chances, Royce and Rowland climbed up to 26,000 feet to shadow the Soviets and warn them off. They’d only gone a short distance before the MiGs made a sudden about face.
“I saw their burners ignite as the seven MiGs made a sharp turn back toward the Oriskany,” said Royce. “They broke into two formations of three and four aircraft each and dove toward the carrier. As they passed through the cloud cover, their vapor trails vanished and we lost contact. I radioed the Oriskany and called out ‘lost contact’ to warn them. They radioed back and said that the bogey blips were no longer visible on radar.”
Worried that they might attack the carrier, Royce dove toward the last known position of the MiGs. Seconds later, four of the Soviet MiGs burst upward through the clouds and started firing at Royce and Rowland. Their cannons flashed orange as 23 and 37 mm rounds raced toward the Panthers. Instinct kicked in and Royce banked to avoid the gunfire. Then anger flushed his cheeks. He focused his eyes on the lead MiG and dove. He clicked his guns and fired a burst. A stream of 20 mm rounds shot from his cannon and pounded into the MiG’s fuselage.
“The MiG’s pilot jerked left and right to avoid my cannon fire, but not in time,” Royce said. “The guy fell out of formation trailing black smoke and a spray of airplane parts.”
Royce’s wingman saw the lead MiG break away and followed him downward to 8,000 feet to ensure he didn’t crash into the carrier. Rowland tried to fire his guns at the MiG to finish him off, but his gun jammed. He finally broke off and turned upward to rejoin Royce.
The three remaining MiGs in the formation of four wanted retribution. They pointed toward Royce and blasted him with more cannon fire. Royce heard a dozen rounds pound into the metal of his Panther. For a fleeting moment, he felt a wave of panic well up inside his chest. Rowland had not yet returned. Royce was all alone and now faced three superior aircraft. They were racing toward him with guns blazing and Royce wondered if his first dogfight would be his last. Royce let his muscle memory take control as he rolled and jinked and banked. Just when he thought he might survive the day, the three MiGs from the other sortie broke through the clouds to join their cohorts.
“One MiG managed to get behind me on my six,” said Royce. “I used a trick I’d been taught to make him overshoot my position. Then I did a loop and got on his six. I locked on and fired.”
The Panther’s High Explosive Armor Piercing rounds detonated against the MiGs shiny fuselage. The plane disintegrated. Parts flew into the air and forced Royce to dodge the debris. He lined up on another MiG and fired. The Soviet plane broke away as the rounds appeared to hit but Royce didn’t follow to verify. He was too busy trying to shake two more Soviets off his six. Yellow tracers from cannon fire raced passed Royce’s cockpit as he executed rollercoaster maneuvers to avoid the rounds. He heard several hit with dull thuds. He held his breath and waited for his plane to explode into a ball of fire.
When it didn’t, Royce went after another MiG and pounded it with 20 mm cannon fire. The MiG broke off in a trail of smoke. Then he heard several more rounds slam into the side of his plane. He felt the Panther shudder and knew instantly that he’d lost most of his rudder and aileron control. Only his elevators were still functioning normally. Then his low fuel light lit up.
“I didn’t have any choice at that point,” said Royce. “Due to the patchy cloud cover, Rowland had not been able to find me again and I was badly damaged. I had to break off and return to the Oriskany.”
With 37 mm rounds whizzing past his canopy, Royce dove his wounded plane toward the dark cumulous cover. He raced past 12,000 feet and struggled to keep his plane pointed toward home.
“My Panther nearly slammed onto the deck of the Oriskany and skidded from side to side when I hit the tailhook, but she held together,” said Royce. “I climbed out of the cockpit and thanked God that those Soviet pilots hadn’t been better shots. I still don’t know how I made it back in one piece.”
Royce hadn’t made it back in one piece. The next day, the deck crew circled all the holes on Royce’s plane. Some were made by 23 mm rounds, others by 30 mm cannon fire, and others by parts that had broken loose and ripped through the metal. Royce climbed up on one wing while someone snapped a photo.
“They counted two-hundred-sixty-three holes in my plane,” said Royce. “It’s a miracle she held together long enough for me to get back to the Oriskany.”
Sometime later, Vice Admiral Robert Briscoe informed Royce that he’d shot down at least three of the MiGs, but he was cautioned that he could tell no one about the encounter. Details of Royce’s thirty-five-minute dogfight with seven Soviet MiGs remained top secret for another fifty years. When Russia finally declassified the incident, they reported the names of the four lost MiG pilots.
“I feel bad for those guys I shot down,” said Royce. “They were just pilots doing their job, just like me. But I’m damn glad I survived that day. If I hadn’t remembered what I’d been taught, I wouldn’t have. My advice to leaders, and to anyone, is to be humble and teachable. You never know if it might one day save your life.”
Today, at the spry age of ninety-two, E. Royce Williams is one of only 200 members who belong to an elite club of the finest aviators in history called the Golden Eagles. He has been nominated for the Medal of Honor. Royce is proud of his military service and encourages all veterans to stay connected with each other by joining a veteran’s organization like the American Legion. Royce believes that all veterans should strive to help support other veterans, and one of the best ways to do that is by continuing serve as a member of the American Legion and similar non-profit like the Us4Warriors Foundation.
William Craig Reed is the New York Times bestselling author of The 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership. Proceeds from this book benefit veterans.
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