Capt. Royce Williams in front of a Panther jet. Courtesy San Diego GI Film Festival
An amendment to grant the Congressional Medal of Honor to an Escondido resident and former U.S. Naval aviator who prevailed in perhaps the longest dogfight between a lone American fighter pilot and enemy combatants was approved Thursday by the House of Representatives.
E. Royce Williams, 97, was the focus of an amendment that Rep. Darrell Issa and other San Diego-area members of Congress attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, nominating the veteran for the nation’s highest award for heroism.
The amendment and bill were approved and forwarded to the Senate.
Issa made a speech on the floor of the House hailing Williams as “an American hero and a Top Gun pilot like no other,” saying there were few comparisons to the “the heroism and valor he demonstrated for 30 harrowing minutes, 70 years ago, in the skies over the North Pacific and coast of North Korea.”
“It is, to this day, the most unique U.S.-Soviet aerial combat dogfight in the history of the Cold War — and one that is truly for the ages,” Issa said.
Williams, who retired from the Navy as a captain in the mid-1970s, was on combat air patrol in a single-seat F9F Panther fighter jet, flying with three other squadron mates deployed from a carrier anchored in the Sea of Japan, on Nov. 18, 1952, when the Americans encountered seven Soviet MiG-15s at higher altitude along the Yalu River.
According to accounts of the mission retold in books and other media, the men were ordered by their commander to retreat to the carrier and establish a protective screen. Three of the pilots succeeded, but Williams soon discovered he had been boxed in by the Soviet fighters.
Williams was forced to engage the MiGs as they swarmed him, culminating in a half-hour of gut-wrenching maneuvers to avoid being shot down while trying to take out the Russian pilots trying to kill him.
“I was engaged mentally at the time,” Williams recently told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “A lot of it was awareness of where they were and how I had to maneuver to avoid them. They were taking turns. I decided if I concentrated on shooting them down, then I’d become an easy target. So my initial goal was to look for defensive opportunities when they made mistakes.”
Williams blasted four out of the sky and likely scored hits on two others, whose pilots never returned to their base in Vladivostik, according to the book “Red Devils Over the Yalu.”
Williams said he ran out of ammunition and made a bee line for his ship, evading the seventh MiG pilot by diving in and out of clouds for cover. He landed uneventfully, but later counted more than 250 machine gun holes in his F9F.
“He also survived a 37-millimeter round to his fuselage, where six inches to the right or left would have meant certain death,” Issa said. “This was an act of indomitable courage and the demonstration of the highest skill under incalculable duress.”
Williams was told to clam up about the dogfight for fear of causing negative publicity for the Soviets, who weren’t officially involved in the Korean War.
According to one account, President Dwight Eisenhower personally directed that the incident remain under wraps. It was not officially acknowledged until the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the ensuing release of Soviet archives in the 1990s, which detailed the air battle.
Since then, several personal advocates for Williams have sought to have him nominated for the Medal of Honor, but those efforts haven’t yielded momentum.
Along with Issa, four other House members, all from San Diego County, joined to form an advocacy coalition in support of his receipt of the medal.
“We won’t stop until Royce Williams receives the recognition he doesn’t seek, but richly deserves,” Issa said. “It is long past time for Congress to have a real say on who receives the Congressional Medal of Honor.”