Declassified Heroism

By Gayne C. Young

A true badass doesn’t brag about his exploits. He keeps them to himself. Which is exactly what Royce Williams did…for 50 years.

Born on April 4, 1925, in Wilmot, South Dakota, Elmer Royce Williams enlisted in the US Navy following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He qualified as a United States Naval Aviator in August 1945 and was later assigned to active duty in the Korean War. In 1952, the young lieutenant was serving with the VF-781 aboard the USS Oriskany as part of Task Force 77. On November 18 of that year, Williams was flying his F9F Panther on his second mission of the day while on combat air patrol over the most northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were identified and determined to be heading toward the US task force’s position. Williams and his group were sent to investigate. 

Shortly into their mission, the group’s leader experienced mechanical trouble and he and his wingman headed back to their carrier. This left only Williams and his own wingman on patrol. The Soviet MiGs appeared in very close proximity to Williams and Williams quickly sensed their ill-intentions.

This was a complete surprise as detailed by Williams in a 2021 interview with the American Veterans Center: “They just didn’t come out of Russia and engage us in any way before.” The task force command immediately ordered Williams and his wingman to put their jets between the MiGs and the American ships and not to engage the Soviets. By the time Williams received that order, the Russians had already fired on him.

The 27-year-old lieutenant quickly ran through his options. “At that time the MiG-15 was the best fighter airplane in the world,” Williams noted. The Soviet’s jets were far faster and could easily outmaneuver those of the Americans that were designed more for air-to-ground combat than aerial dogfighting. Williams tried turning and weaving to avoid taking fire. “I was on automatic, I was doing as trained.” The Russians were doing the same. “But on some occasions … they made mistakes.”

During the 35-minute dogfight Williams fired all 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells his F9F carried, shot down four MiGs, and possibly two others. He returned to his carrier uninjured and out of ammunition. His plane lost all hydraulics and was riddled with 263 bullet holes. It was pushed overboard and into the sea. Williams was debriefed and sworn to secrecy about the fight as authorities felt that news of the Russians attacking the US would lead to an escalation of conflict on the Russians’ part. Williams held his secret for 50 years until the Korean War records were declassified in 2002. It was then, and only then, that he told anyone (including his wife) that he was involved in what has come to be known by military experts as “one of the greatest feats in aviation history.”

The 97-year-old Williams was finally recognized in December 2022 by his country for his incredible service when he was presented with the Navy Cross. California Rep. Darrell Issa, who pushed for Williams to receive the medal said at the ceremony, “The heroism and valor he demonstrated for 35 harrowing minutes 70 years ago in the skies over the North Pacific and the coast of North Korea saved the lives of his fellow pilots, shipmates, and crew. His story is one for the ages, but is now being fully told.”

Well-earned Royce Williams, thank you sir.