Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro awarded the Navy Cross to retired Navy Capt. Royce Williams on Jan. 20 for downing four Soviet MiG-15 aircraft during the Korean War in what is still the longest recorded dogfight in U.S. military history.
For Williams, receiving the Navy Cross was an upgrade from the Silver Star Medal he previously received on May 7, 1953, according to a press release from the Navy. He was awarded the medal for actions taken against seven Soviet MiG 15 aircraft while assigned to the “Pacemakers” of Fighter Squadron (VF) 781.
On Nov. 18, 1952, then-Lt. Williams, an F9F-5 Panther jet fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Oriskany, was flying a combat patrol mission off the coast of Korea with two other F9F pilots when they encountered the MiGs.
A fuel pump issue caused the team’s flight leader to return to the carrier. Shortly after, Williams’ wingman chased down the first MiG Williams shot, leaving Williams alone to handle the remaining six MiGs.
Williams engaged in a 35-minute dogfight against the Soviet aircraft, shooting down another three while suffering a direct hit to his own aircraft.
“Although his own plane was severely damaged by a direct 23-mm hit from one enemy MiG-15 aircraft, he maneuvered to escape yet continued his direction of the engagement until he reached cloud cover in which he dodged the enemy and returned his almost uncontrollable aircraft on board the parent carrier,” his Silver Star citation says.
Williams is the only American fighter pilot to down four MiGs in a single fight, the Navy said.
“In the moment I was a fighter pilot doing my job. … I was only shooting what I had,” Williams previously said about the incident, according to a Navy news release. “They had me cold on maneuverability and acceleration — the MiG was vastly superior on those counts to the F9F. The only thing I could do was out-turn them.”
The Navy Cross is the second highest military decoration — after the Medal of Honor — awarded for extraordinary heroism to service members in the Navy and the Marine Corps.
Williams was awarded the Silver Star in 1953, but Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said Williams’ actions fit with criteria worthy of the Navy Cross, so he decided to upgrade the award.
“Among the many cases I have reviewed, Captain Williams’ case stood out,” Del Toro said during a Jan. 20 ceremony, according to a Navy release. “It was very clear to me that his actions were extraordinary, and more closely aligned with the criteria describing a higher award. … And sir, what a tremendous honor it was to tell you in person, that after all these years, your courageous actions would finally get the recognition they deserve.”
Williams joined the Navy in 1943 and retired in 1980, completing more than 220 combat missions during his service.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.