The Korean War has become a footnote in history, the so-called 'Forgotten War' between WWII and Vietnam. The involvement of US and Allied forces was limited to a UN 'Police Action' to stop the communist expansion into Asia.
Still, for the tens of thousands that served and lost their lives in the Korean War, it is anything but forgotten. The United States provided 88% of the United Nation’s (UN) military personnel while the Soviet Union secretly supported the North Korean communist intention to overthrow their southern countrymen, particularly with the supply of air power but also with materiel such as field artillery and vehicles.
The memories of the Korean War are still fresh in the minds of those who have served, including Naval Aviator, Captain E. Royce Williams, USN, Retired.
Royce was assigned to Navy Fighter Squadron 781 (VF-781) in Carrier Air Group 102 aboard the USS Oriskany in Carrier Task Force 77 supporting combat operations against the North Korean Communist aggressors that invaded South Korea and had being driven back north toward the Chinese and Soviet borders. VF-781 pilots were flying the latest Grumman models of the Panther Jets, the F9F-5 aircraft. The Panther jets were used in the air to ground role for interdiction and close air support and had seen very little aerial contact with Migs. Oriskany was operating off the extreme northern coast of North Korea near Chongjin which put the carrier within easy striking range of Soviet aircraft based in Vladivostok, Siberia. Because of the potential threat from the Soviet Union, a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) was required overhead the carrier as fighter protection against enemy attacks.
The weather over the task force on November 18, 1952 was 500 feet overcast, visibility obscured estimated 2-3 miles in blowing snow. Radar approach and departures were required for all operations. Royce was launched in a flight of four Panthers as part of a large three carrier strike group to hit North Korean industrial targets near the border with the Soviet Union. Multiple bombing runs were successfully executed under the overcast without significant AAA response and all strike aircraft returned safely to the carrier and were recovered without difficulty.
Royce was scheduled for a second launch as second section leader in a four plane CAP mission. The lineup was Lt Claire Elwood-Flight Leader, Ltjg John Middleton-Number Two, Lt Royce Williams-Section Leader and Ltjg David Rowlands-Number four. The Panthers were to provide protection for Oriskany in the event that hostile aircraft approached the carrier. The fighter CAP would be vectored toward the inbound aircraft and either repel or engage the enemy as required. Since no enemy aircraft had previously flown near the carrier the pilots figured on a boring orbit for 1.5 hours.
For the first time in history, Soviet pilots secretly flew against US and Allied forces and in one exhausting 35 minute dogfight against 7 Soviet MiGs, Williams became the only American pilot to single-handedly shoot down 4 Russian MiGs in a single sortie. With the demise of the Soviet state this is a record that will never be broken.
In recent times, after the collapse of the USSR, the Russian government has opened its records to confirm the loss of the 4 MiG-15s and further it has disclosed the names of the four pilots Williams shot down: Captain Belyakov, Captain Vandalov, Lieutenant Pakhomkin and Lieutenant Tarshinov.
The eventful day of November 18th 1952 began for then-LT Williams by preparing to participate in a 3 carrier major strike against the Hoeryong industrial complex very near the North Korea-Russian border. William's base carrier USS Oriskany launched a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) into the blustery skies above the Sea of Japan. The CAP was in the midst of a blizzard, with cloud cover at 400 feet and the visibility way below minimums. Remember, Korea is a landscape filled with large hills and small mountains, and visibility of the ground was an important factor in determining if you came back from a mission alive or in a box inside a rescue helicopter.
Division Leader, Lieutenant Claire Elwood and his wingman LTJG John Middletown with Section Leader, Royce Williams and his wingman LTJG David Rowlands served as CAP that day. Soon after the CAP was launched, the Combat Information Center (CIC) reported multiple bogeys (enemy) approaching inbound, 80 miles north of Task Force 77.
The Combat Air Patrol finally broke through the clouds of the howling snowstorm at around 12,000 feet. As they advanced upward, Section Leader Williams spotted seven contrails well above 50,000 feet. This was above his own maximum altitude his plane could attain. The bogeys were quickly identified and reported as MiG-15s. Moments later, the Flight Leader reported a fuel pump warning light and the CIC had no option but to order LT Elwood and his wingman, LTJG Middleton to return to CAP duty directly above the USS Oriskany, so in the event of a loss of fuel pressure they would still be able to lnd safely on the caarrier.
The defense of Task Force 77 was now placed in the hands of Williams who took the Lead with LTJG Rowlands as his wingman. Although the two F9F-5 Panthers were outnumbered and out-classed on manoeuvrability and acceleration and top speed, and really had no business mixing it with the MiGs the American pilots boldly continued the pursuit against the 7 MiGs.
The MiGs came over them and reversed, seemingly heading back to their base at Vladivostok, but this turned out to be a ruse.
MiGs turn to attack (image courtesy mofak.com)
As Williams continued to track them and climb to 26,000 feet, the MiGs suddenly split into two groups in an attempt to corner the Panthers. One group of four MiGs came straight in firing from the 10 o’clock position, as the other 3 MiGs circled around to bracket them.
Williams turned sharply into the enemy and the 4 MiGs over-shot him, missing their targets. As they passed, he pulled a hard left turn and kicked in the rudder to get his sight on the number four MiG. After a short burst of fire, the MiG went down. This was a deflection shot from a master shotmaker.
His wingman, LTJG Rowlands, followed the damaged plane as it dropped out of formation but this was a tactical error as it left Williams alone against 6 Soviet adversaries. Complete chaos ensued… Williams was in the fight of his life, working at every moment to keep the MiGs off his tail. He utilized every possible Guns Defense move he had learned in flight school to keep the MiGs from getting bearing on his Panther and as he reversed and jinked against the far superior aircraft, he managed to stay clear of the MiGs locking onto his tail.
Williams chased after three of the remaining MiGs, trying to manoeuvre into firing positions with them. His Panther was no match to the Soviet MiGs whose superior speed and rate of climb made it easy for them to zoom away.
One MiG turned around, pointing back at him and quickly disappeared into the bright sun. Williams immediately noticed the other two MiGs had already made their turn and they were coming right at him in a diving attack. Williams swiftly turned into them as they fired out of range. As the lead MiG approached 2,000 feet, he quickly broke away to avoid the opposing fire. The other MiG followed right behind the lead, which gave Williams the opportunity to get him into his sights. He fired at the enemy until he disappeared underneath his wings. It was a presumed hit, since Williams didn’t have the luxury to follow for confirmation.
'Then the Fight was on. They were no longer in formation. They were flying to position themselves to attack me one at a time,' Williams recalls. The opposing MiGs were determined to down the sole Grumman Panther. One of the MiGs came back around and Williams reversed to put his gun sights on him. As the MiG turned, he was able to fire at him. The blast was so abrupt, Williams had to manoeuvre violently to avoid swallowing the exploding MiG parts.
'There was a lot of maneuvering, some shooting and mostly dodging going on,' remembers Williams. During the 35 minute dog-fight, the MiGs would over shoot and occasionally they did not climb, which gave Williams the opportunity to track and fire at them. While Williams was tracking a smoking MiG to finish him off, he looked back and saw another MiG coming in onto his tail. He put in a lot of rudder and kicked the airplane over to give the opposition a tough shot. Williams’s luck was finally running out and the MiG hit him with a burst of fire from his 37mm cannon in the wing section and accessory section of the Pratt and Whitney engine.
The relentless MiG came back around and settled on his tail to ensure the kill. In remarkable feat of flying Williams had to use both hands on the stick to manoeuvre properly, because he had by now lost two of his 3 controls, the ailerons and the rudder. The elevator still worked perfectly, so he could only porpoise to pull up and push over hard, similar to a pitch and tuck maneuver. He could see the bullets fly by him as the attacker shot away at him. Out of ammo and riddled with holes, Williams headed back home as he took to the cloud cover and they lost sight of each other in the snow storm.
Williams came out of the clouds at about 400 feet. He was flying too low to eject safely and the freezing waters of the Sea of Japan would have taken him within 15 minutes in his immersion suit. As the Panther drew closer for a troubled landing, his day ws finally made as his own side opened up on him! The destroyers escorting Task Force 77 opened fire mistaking him for an enemy aircraft. 'Fortunately, I was low enough that they didn’t have a chance to really aim, so nobody hit me,' Williams explained.
However, landing was going to be a real problem. He found his Panther in its present condition would stall below 170 knots whilst the normal carrier approach speed is 120 knots. He had no option but to try a landing at roughly 200 miles an hour for an inevitable crash landing.
Focusing - as every pilot should do - entirely on keeping control of the aircraft, he had to use backup systems to lower the landing gear and tail hook. The Oriskany’s Commanding Officer, Captain Courtney Shands was alerted and adjusted the carrier away from the wind to try and compensate for the F9F’s out-of-control speed and inability to manoeuvre properly. Incredibly, Williams was able to land safely and engaged the number 3 wire, which was much attributed to the sturdy construction of the Grumman aircraft. Miraculously, Williams was unscathed.
On the flight deck, the plane captain rushed to congratulate the Lieutenant. 263 perforations were circled and counted on his Panther, ranging from a foot wide to minor cuts in the fuselage. The Grumman F9F-5 Panther that fought so valiantly was so badly damaged it had to be pushed over the side into the ocean.
Williams headed to the Ready Room for debriefing, however the Intelligence Officer delayed the investigation, because he wanted to wait for the Flight Leader. In the meantime, the tension grew higher due to pressure from Washington, awaiting a full report on the incident. 'They already knew there was some sort of rumble with the Soviets and they wanted the answers, right now!' Williams affirmed. The Intelligence Officer sent out a phoney report based upon the very limited information he received and the lack of details and understanding of the engagement. Williams hiself was credited with a single kill and a probable-damaged, LTJG Middleton was credited with a kill and William’s wingman, Dave Rowlands was given a probable.
A week later, the USS Oriskany arrived in Yokosuka, Japan where Williams was ordered to see Vice Admiral Robert P. Briscoe, Commander Naval Forces Far East. Admiral Briscoe informed the Lieutenant that the United States has a new capability called the NSA, National Security Agency. They were covertly aboard the USS Helena, right off Vladivostok on their first mission. The NSA told Admiral Briscoe to tell that young man that he got at least three. They were able to follow the MiGs from take-off until the remnant MiGs came back. Admiral Briscoe warned Williams to never speak of the incident for fear of escalating the Korean conflict into World War III.
Captain E. Royce Williams, USN Retired, flew over 220 missions mainly in Korea and Vietnam. Williams has not yet received the full recognition for his acts of valour above and beyond the call of duty on November 18th, 1952.