Sixty-eight years ago, U.S. Navy pilot Royce Williams survived what is perhaps the longest aerial dogfight in U.S. military history. He would face seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets during one 35-minute battle. After the engagement, military leaders were concerned the incident might mark a devastating increase of tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Williams was ordered to keep silent about the events of November 18, 1952.
Today, U.S. Senator Mike Rounds and other supporters are lobbying for Williams, a former South Dakotan, to be honored with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
95-year-old Royce Williams grew up in Roberts County, Wilmot to be exact. His father was a grocer and a veteran of the first World War. He yearned to be like his father.
Later in life, he developed a much greater appreciation for his upbringing and for life in northeastern South Dakota.
"I didn’t realize the fortunate life I had. The openness … everybody friendly – looking after one another … go out and learn to swim, learn to shoot. We used to play a lot of cowboy and Indian games and run around all over as long as you came back before the lights came on in the summer before dinner. It was wonderful."
While thumbing through photos at the San Diego Air and Space Museum, Williams stops on a picture of him as a young boy and fondly tells of one of his very first talents.
"Well I have chaps and kind of a cowboy outfit. I was very interested in being a cowboy at one point. We had Whipple Ranch quite nearby. They were famous for putting on rodeos and county fairs throughout North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota. And I had a cousin that worked at the ranch. But, I got pretty good with the lasso and I’d lasso kids in the summer. And my oldest son – I taught him too – and by age eight he’d have kids running by and give ‘em rope burn…hahaha!"
Williams brought that cowboy spirit into his career with the U.S. Navy which began in 1943.
During the Korean War Williams noticed that reserve pilots were being called into duty. He was determined to serve his country. Williams was qualified on Corsairs, but he had his heart set on flying the F9F Panther jet. He made a call to the commanding officer of the Panther squadron who just happened to be the executive officer of the ROTC unit at the University of Minnesota – his alma mater. His orders were changed the next day.
Over a 37-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Williams got the opportunity to fly several different types of fighter aircraft. However, Williams still feels deeply connected to the Grumman F9F Panther, a carrier-based fighter — because that’s the airplane he was flying when the unexpected happened over the Sea of Japan nearly 70 years ago. The Panther saved Williams’ life.
"I actually have some models and pictures around my house. I have an affection for it because I went through some severe times with it and it was like a dress heeled horse. It got me through. Grumman made a great dependable product and where it was great at delivering weaponry it was also very good at surviving."
On November 18, 1952, at the height of the Korean Conflict, Royce Williams and three other F9F Panther pilots launched from the USS Oriskany in the midst of a blizzard. Their mission: Intercept seven Soviet MiG-15 fighters south of Vladivostok.
The Panthers climbed through the snow to 12,000 feet. That’s when Williams noticed the seven contrails of the MiGs at over 50,000 feet. One U.S. aircraft encountered fuel pump trouble shortly before the engagement. That pilot, along with his wingman, headed back to the carrier group.
Then the Soviets surprised the American flyers by opening fire on the remaining two U.S. aircraft.
The Americans were told not to engage. But Williams responded that it was too late.
Williams quickly crippled the first MiG, and it peeled off from the fight, followed by Williams’ wingman.
Now Royce Williams and his Panther were alone in the sky with six MiGs. After more than 30 minutes of aerial combat in which Williams burned the skin on his neck from snapping his head back and forth to catch sight of the enemy, Williams shot down three more of the Soviet fighters, for a total of four kills. He escaped one of the last two MiGs by making a 30-degree dive into a snowstorm cloud. His aircraft received 263 bullet holes and perforations. He barely made it back to his carrier.
Fearing an escalation during the Cold War, Williams’ commanders swore him to silence. Williams says he was never tempted to speak of his heroics until it the incident was declassified.
"No, I was told not to talk about it and I just accepted it. Matter of fact, other things came along and since it wasn’t going to be mentioned I more or less put it out of my mind."
Peter-Rolf Ohnstad, another former South Dakotan and Navy Pilot, is a member of William’s American Legion Post in Encinitas, California. He’s one of several people who are being proactive in seeing that Williams receives the Medal of Honor for his courage on November 18, 1952. Ohnstad recounts the words of a Navy F-14 pilot in describing Williams’ service on that day.
"As a fighter pilot we never trained even to go more than three on one. Two on one is a dogfight and most times the dogfights would be over in 35 to 50 seconds.” He said, “When I looked at Royce’s engagement – him against the seven MiGs – I equate it as the same thing as you see when somebody gets the Medal of Honor for throwing themselves on a grenade.” He said, “Royce Williams threw himself on a grenade, but he lived.”
Williams holds a Distinguished Flying Cross. Members of the Flying Cross Society say that Williams has never asked to be awarded a Medal of Honor, although he admits the recent attention gives him a “chill.” Whether he will receive Americas highest and most prestigious personal military decoration, at the age of 95, remains to be seen.
-Contact SDPB’s Steve Zwemke by email.