Here’s a Real-Life Top Gun Story for You

Miguel Lagoa /
Miguel Lagoa /

It’s not every day that someone is awarded the Navy Cross, one of the Navy’s highest honors of all time. So when it does happen, you can be sure there is a pretty good story behind it. And this one might as well be straight out of Tom Cruise’s Top Gun Films.

To say it’s one for the history books is an understatement indeed.

It’s the story of Navy fighter jet pilot and aviator Captain Royce Williams who was recently awarded the Navy Cross for shooting down not one but a total of four Soviet MiG fighter jets during the Korean War. And then, despite the day’s heroic events and barely making it back to the carrier in one piece, he was sworn to secrecy for some 50 years.

As Secretary Del Toro said of Williams, now 97, during the recent award ceremony, “Freedom does not come cheap. It comes through the sacrifice of all those who have and continue to serve in today’s military. Your actions that day kept you free. They kept your shipmates free in Task Force 77. Indeed, they kept all of us free.”

But for Williams, he says he was doing what he was trained to do.

On November 18, 1952, Williams, along with his wingman and two other fighter jets, was sent on a mission in the Sea of Japan, taking off from the carrier USS Oriskany which was about 100 or so miles from the Peninsula.

However, shortly after takeoff, it became apparent that one of the planes was malfunctioning, so that plane, along with the accompanying wingman, turned and headed back to the carrier. Williams and his wingman were instructed to stick to the mission, rated top secret.

It wasn’t long before radar showed seven Soviet MiG fighters headed towards the carrier group, no doubt intent on doing a lot of damage. Naturally, it was up to Williams and his wingman to stop them.

Now, if you know much about Cold War Era planes, you’ll know that the Soviet’s MiGs were far superior in speed and firepower to Williams’ F9F Panther. But it’s not like the Americans could call it quits, right?

Multiple sources note that it was the Soviets who engaged first, with four MiGs suddenly turning and opening fire on Williams and his wingman. Later, it was verified that this was the first time Soviet jets ever swooped down to engage US fighters.

Naturally, Williams and his wingman returned fire. One of the four enemy planes was almost immediately damaged, causing it to leave the pack’s safety. Williams’s wingman followed in hot pursuit.

But this meant Williams was left to defend himself against six MiGs alone. He says he did the only thing he knew how to against the superior aircraft, bob, and weave, and hope that he could get in a few shots of his own on occasion. The agile maneuverability of the F9 was his only saving grace.

And it was this, along with Williams’s training, that allowed him to shoot at and scare off one MiG. Shortly after this, and with plenty of bullets hitting his own craft, another MiG was sent careening into the ocean. Then, another met a similar fate.

At this point, Williams’ plane had sustained so much damage that he could no longer do much with his controls and was out of ammunition. Luckily, his wingman came back about then, sending the remaining MiG scurrying home.

The F9s turned back to the carrier to land, which would be another feat in and of itself for Williams’ damaged aircraft. Thanks to good training, the ship being turned just so, and some guidance from a guardian angel or two, Williams somehow managed to safely land the plane on the carrier, barely hooking the last arresting wire.

Records show that Williams’ plane took on at least 263 bullets and was so damaged that it would never fly again.

Shortly afterward, Williams was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism and a one-on-one interview with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, all that was kept hush-hush due to fears that news of the dogfight might enflame tensions between the US and the Soviet Union and possibly even begin WWIII in Korea.

It wasn’t until 2002 that the feat was declassified as top secret. And now, Williams is finally getting the recognition he deserves, that of a true hero.