Former US Navy Grumman F9F Panther pilot E Royce Williams was recently awarded the Navy Cross by Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Carlos Del for his solo dogfight with seven Soviet Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 pilots during the Korean War.
On November 18, 1952, Retd. Capt. Williams, who was then a Lieutenant in the US Navy, took off in his F9F-5 from the USS Oriskany, along with three other pilots from his fighter squadron, VF-781, into the stormy skies over the Sea of Japan.
“We started to rendezvous with each other as we climbed out of the clouds,” Williams recalled. “And that’s when we heard from the combat information center that there were inbound bogeys from the north,” he said.
US Intelligence reports assessed that the MiGs were seeking retribution for a major airstrike earlier that day (in which Lt. Williams had also participated), on an industrial complex in northeastern North Korea, only around eight kilometers from the Soviet border.
The bogeys were detected on radar roughly 80 nautical miles (148.16 kilometers) in the north-northeast. There appeared to be seven Soviet MiG-15 fighters that had taken off from a Soviet base in Vladivostok.
Soon after, Williams’ flight was directed toward the bogeys. During this time, one of the jets suffered a fuel pump problem which forced it to break off and return to the aircraft carrier bringing his wingman with him as an escort, leaving Williams and his wingman to defend the carrier against incoming MiGs.
The F9Fs had broken out in the clear at 12,000 feet and were climbing past 16,000 feet when Williams spotted the enemies’ contrails (line-shaped clouds produced by aircraft engine exhaust) some seventy kilometers from the carrier. He estimated that the Soviet fighters were flying 30,000 feet higher.
Williams kept ascending and radioed back to the Oriskany that he had sighted the MiGs split into a three-plane and a four-plane group. The CIC onboard Oriskany radioed Williams not to engage when suddenly the MiGs opened fire with their 23mm and 37mm cannon, and the battle was on!
The engagement became one of the most incredible feats in aerial combat and arguably the longest aerial duel in US military history.
The Epic Dogfight: One Against Seven!
Williams radioed back to the CIC, ensuring his cannons were armed and ready to fire. “We are already engaged!”
The attacking aircraft were indeed swept-wing MiG-15s, which surpassed Williams’ Panther in speed, maneuverability, climb rate, and the weapons range.
While the US Navy had scored some early kills against the MiGs, their mission had now changed to one which primarily entailed ground attack sorties.
The aerial combat was generally limited to the western half of the Korean peninsula, where the US Air Force (USAF’s) F-86 Sabres would patrol the approaches from China known as ‘MiG Alley,’ which indicated to Williams that the planes he was engaging were most likely launched from the Soviet Union.
The four-plane formation of MiGs came at Williams and his wingman from the right side and opened fire. Williams pulled into a hard climbing left turn, came around on the “Number Four MiG,” and fired a short burst at its rear fuselage.
The MiG went down smoking, and Williams’ wingman followed it, leaving the former alone to face six remaining Soviet fighters.
As the two MiG formations climbed for altitude to make attacking dives, Williams found himself on the tail of one and downed the second aircraft. After this, he had to be careful while firing shots, as the Panther carried less ammunition than the MiGs.
“In that moment, I was a fighter pilot doing my job. I was only shooting what I had,” said Williams.
The remaining five MiGs now began taking turns climbing and then making passes at Williams, who could only engage a Soviet jet when it passed in front of him or rapidly turned to engage them head-on.
“I was engaged mentally at the time. 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 that if I concentrated on shooting them down, I’d become an easy target. So, my initial goal was to look for defensive opportunities when they made mistakes,” he said.
Williams then fired at another MiG, forcing it to a bank (inclined turn) out of the fight, and the wingman of that aircraft turned towards him, who fired a long burst as the two jets passed close to each other, with the Soviet plane crashing into the sea.
The three remaining MiGs of the other group easily accelerated away from Williams and gained altitude to dive for another firing run.
Williams saw their left wings emerge as they reversed course and managed to fire a burst as the MiGs flashed past but failed to score any hits. The three MiGs pulled away again to make another firing run.
Williams then saw a MiG locked on him from behind. He made a tough wings-vertical right turn with contrails spinning off his wingtip fuel tanks, and the MiG flashed past his tail.
Eventually, the enemy formations were torn apart, allowing Williams to track an individual MiG as the pilot dived in to attack. Some rounds appeared to hit, but he could not follow up as he had to avoid getting locked on from behind.
“I was firing at every MiG that passed within gun range as they came by,” said Williams.
Finally, the leader of the group and his wingman turned to the right, and Williams went after the section leader of the plane he had shot, who pulled up into the sun, and Williams lost him.
After that, Williams saw the leader and his wingman come around for a diving attack. “I turned into them and fired at the leader. He turned away, and the wingman rolled down on me, and we went past belly-to-belly as I raked him with a long burst. He caught fire and went down,” he explained.
The section leader then came around, and Williams turned into him and fired at him practically point-blank, and he also went down.
The flight leader came around again, and Williams fired, and parts came off his aircraft as he went away.
Precarious Landing With A Panther Full Of Holes!
The Panther had also suffered a lot of damage of its own.
“I was turning, and one guy hit me with the 37mm cannon that knocked out my hydraulics,” said Williams.
With no ammunition and a plane that could barely fly, he turned back toward the Oriskany, using his remaining flight controls to maneuver the aircraft.
Diving low into the clouds, Williams thought of ejecting but decided to keep flying, knowing full well that in that weather, he could not have survived in the time it would have taken to find him.
Also, he found that his aircraft was uncontrollable below 170 knots which made the approach dangerous, considering the Panther’s normal landing speed was 105 knots.
As Williams approached the aircraft carrier, several escorting destroyers fired on him, mistaking him for an enemy aircraft.
Aboard Oriskany, the deck was ordered cleared for what was going to be a crash landing. “I told them I couldn’t fly slower than 170 knots and I could see the ship visibly speed up as she turned into the wind,” Williams said.
Eventually, the Oriskany’s captain turned the ship away from the wind, allowing Williams to make a straight-in approach.
On deck, there were 263 holes counted in Williams’ Panther, although he never saw it again.
The jet was supposedly pushed off the deck into the sea, with the gun camera footage being taken away for analysis.
The Dogfight Never Happened, According To US Records!
Navy Admiral Robert Briscoe informed Williams, then commander of Naval Forces Far East, that while it was confirmed he had shot down three and possibly four MiGs, he was not to discuss the engagement with anyone, ever.
The US Navy and National Security Agency also did not keep a record of this incident because the US was concerned that acknowledging the incident might drag the Soviets into the Korean War.
Therefore, it was not mentioned in the declassified American archives for the Korean War.
Meanwhile, Williams continued to serve in the Navy for an additional 23 years, flying 110 sorties during the Vietnam War.
He retired in 1975 with a display case full of awards, including the Silver Star, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Legion of Merit with combat “V.”
He kept the dogfight a secret from everyone, including his wife Camilla and his pilot brother, until the early 2000s, when the Korean War archives were formally declassified.
Four decades later, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, records began to come out from Moscow confirming the aerial battle.
The dogfight was covered in a chapter in a 2014 book by Russian historian Igor Seidov, “Red Devils Over the Yalu: A Chronicle of Soviet Aerial Operations in the Korean War.”
However, according to that book, four MiGs were brought down by a single American aircraft, one was shot up and crashed while returning, and the seventh was never located.