E. Royce Williams held the stick of the Navy F9F-5 Panther tightly as he rocketed off the US Navy carrier USS Oriskany in a blustery snowstorm off the coast of Korea on Nov. 18, 1952, on a mission so secret, it was not revealed until 50 years later.
The task was daunting — he and three other jet fighters were to intercept seven Russian MiGs — that’s right, seven MiG-15s, headed toward them from a Soviet base in Vladivostok.
Worse yet, according to the latest intel, they were angry MiGs — bent on revenge, because of a morning attack in western North Korea near the Soviet border.
It was payback time, and all bets were off.
The fledgling National Security Agency (nicknamed No Such Agency because of its intelligence gathering role) had a unit aboard a nearby cruiser, the USS Helena, and was intercepting Soviet communications — a capability it did not want made public.
As Williams, now 95 recounts, one of the flight developed a technical problem, and had to return to the ship with his wingman as an escort.
That left then-Lt. Williams and his wingman, pilot Dave Rowlands, to face seven much more sophisticated Soviet fighters — a mission that almost guaranteed flying into the face of certain death.
Finally, the prey was in sight — high above them at 40,000 feet and the silvery glint of their bare metal fuselages. The battle was on.
According to The National Interest, Royce turned hard and managed to fall behind the last MiG and set it aflame with a cannon burst. However, the guns of his wing mate Rowland’s Panther had jammed. Wishing to record Royce’s kill for posterity with his gun camera, Rowland stayed on the MiG’s tail as it splashed into the ocean.
Williams was left in a swirling dogfight with the six remaining Soviet fighters that lasted about twenty minutes.
He kept his Panther at full throttle and kept turning inwards of attacking MiGs, firing short bursts from his cannons. The twenty-six-year-old from Minnesota had received high marks during gunnery training.
In rapid succession he managed to rake first the lead fighter and its wingmate with 20mm shells while coming out of turn, causing both to burst into flames, and then heavily damaged a fourth MiG.
“I would fire at a plane and then someone else would be on my tail and I had to manoeuver and I couldn’t tell what happened to the plane I shot,” he says.
When the dogfight ended, only two MiGs would fly back to Vladivostok that day. One, presumably damaged, was later said by a Russian military historian to have crashed en route to home.
However, his Panther paid a heavy price — it was drilled with 263 holes, including a gash nearly a foot long, and with his hydraulic and electrical systems failing, he would also lose his rudder and most of his turning ability.
He retained his elevators so he could still go up and down, so down he went, heading for cloud cover with a MiG on his tail. He recalls jerking his plane higher and lower to evade a barrage of shots. Somehow, he dodged his adversary and headed home.
But it didn’t end there — Williams encountered friendly fire as he approached his carrier. He also discovered that his damaged plane couldn’t fly below a speed of 170 knots (105 knots was his normal tailhook landing speed).
He only survived because, in an unusual move, the carrier captain changed the direction of the ship to align it with Williams’ flight path.
Williams and pilot John Middleton earned Silver Stars, and Rowlands was credited with damaging a plane and awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross — all were told it was top secret and never to speak of it again.
For 40 years, Williams was mum about that encounter. He didn’t even tell his wife, Camilla — whom he met at age 11 in Sunday School — until 1992 or ’93, he says, after dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991. But the word didn’t really get out until 50 years after the incident, after he was asked to address a military symposium in Pensacola, Fla.
In the 1990s Russia would declassify its own account of the air battle near Vladivostok and reveal the names of the four Soviet pilots fallen in action, including Captain Valandov and Lieutenants Palomkhin and Tarshinov.
Rear Adm. Doniphan Shelton and members of American Legion Post 416 in Encinitas are now campaigning to get him the Medal of Honor while he is still among us.
“Four MiG-15s down over a period of time is one thing, quite another when those four are downed in one historic 35-to-38-minute aerial engagement of one F9F-5 against seven very superior MiG-15s,” says Shelton.
The Panther never achieved the iconic MiG-killer status of the glamorous swept-wing F-86 Sabre; it earned a different reputation, according to Air & Space.
While it performed the dangerous grunt work of ground attack, it became known as a tough bird that brought its pilots home, including three Korean War pilots who either were, or would become, celebrated American heroes: Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and future astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
What little glamour the Panther won came Stateside: It became the first jet flown by the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team.
As for Williams, the humble senior is taking the quest for a Medal of Honor in stride. It’s in his past. He says he doesn’t expect any additional recognition.
What is currently on his mind is climbing aboard a World War II plane on Memorial Day (May 25) in Riverside and flying with one of 18 vintage warbird pilots over Southern California to pay tribute to veterans of all conflicts.
(Sources: The San Diego Union-Tribune and The National Interest)