Royce Williams and his epic, 15-minute dogfight.
On Nov. 18, 1952 an epic, 15-minute dogfight involving three F9F-5s and seven MiG-15s took place southeast of the North Korean city of Chongjin.
As told by Warren Thompson in his book F9F Panther Units of the Korean War, cloud cover that day started at just 500 ft above the freezing Sea of Japan, with visibility estimated at two miles in blowing snow as the Siberian blizzard howled over the pitching, rolling shapes of the ships forming TF 77.
On the flightdeck of USS Oriskany (CV/CVA-34) the deckcrew manoeuvred two F9F-5 Panthers of VF-781 onto the catapults. Division leader Lt Claire Elwood and wingman Lt(jg) John Middleton advanced their throttles and held the aeroplanes in position by standing on the brakes. They were then shot off the bow in quick succession, dipping low over the grey seas as they retracted their landing gear. Section leader Lt Royce Williams and wingman Lt(jg) David Rowlands moved into position behind Elwood and Middleton. In the blowing snow of the Siberian blizzard, the four dark blue jets were soon swallowed in the blind snow flurries within the clouds, their noses high, climbing under foil power at 5000 ft per minute.
Bogies had been detected
As each pilot strained to maintain visual reference on each other, the radio came alive with the information that bogies had been detected 83 miles north, directly inbound toward the task force. The order was simple — Intercept. After two minutes in the clouds, things began to get brighter and suddenly’ all four pilots were out of the cloud and in clear skies at 12,000 ft. ‘None of us had ever flown together before’, Royce Williams explained to historian Thomas McKelvey Cleaver in 2012 `When the carrier decided to launch an extra CAP, the squadron gave it to the four of us because, for various reasons, we hadn’t been able to fly a lot recently. My first mission in ten days after catching a cold had been the strikes against Hoeryong that morning’.
From four against seven to two against seven
The four Panthers continued straining upwards. As they passed through 16,000 ft, Section Leader Williams spotted seven contrails far above, 40,000 ft or more. A moment later, his sharp eyes caught the sun flashing on the shiny swept-wings of seven MiG-15s flying abreast of each other, the jets carrying the red star of the Soviet Union on their flanks. ‘I flipped my gunsight and fired a burst to test my guns. At that moment, Lt Elwood, the Flight Leader, reported his fuel pump warning light had come on. The CIC [Combat Information Center] directed him to report overhead the Oriskany. He passed the lead to me and turned back in the direction of the task force, with his wingman flying as his safety escort’. The odds had just gone from four against seven to two against seven, as the MiGs continued inbound. Williams maintained his climb.
Royce Williams alone against six MiGs
`We were just going through 26,000 ft when the Russians split up and dove out of the contrail layer — the first ones came at us from the side in a four-aeroplane formation, shooting. I pulled into a hard climbing left turn and came around on the Number Four MiG. I fired a burst and he went down smoking. My wingman then followed him down, leaving me alone.’ The odds were now one against six. The three remaining MiGs of the first group climbed to position themselves for another firing run. They reversed course and Williams turned into them again and again, firing as they flashed by at a very high closure rate. ‘They had me cold on manoeuvrability and acceleration — the MiG was vastly superior on those counts to the F9F.’
The other three MiGs now joined in too, with Williams dogfighting six enemy fighters in an aeroplane that should not have been able compete. While he reversed, jinked and rolled against the gaggle, he saw a MiG locked on his ‘six o’clock’ position, forcing him to execute a very hard turn in order to escape. Several times he tracked an individual MiG, firing rounds that appeared to hit his target, but he could not follow these bursts up, instead trying to keep his ‘six o’clock’ clear. ‘I was firing at every MiG that passed within gun range as they came by’, he recalled. Williams kept the Panther at full throttle, each time turning into the enemy fighters as they commenced a firing pass.
Royce Williams shoots down four MiG-15s in one dogfight
‘Finally, the leader and wingman went off to the right while I went after the section leader of the aeroplane I’d shot down. He went into the sun and I lost him, then I saw the leader and wingman come around for a diving attack on me. 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 went down on fire’.
Williams duly pulled up and away from the burning enemy fighter. ‘The section leader then came around, and I turned into him and opened fire. He too went down. The leader then came around again and I fired, and parts came off him as he dove away’. In the light of his life, Royce Williams had done what no other American pilot had accomplished in the Korean War — the shooting down of four MiG-15s in one mission. But the light was not over.
‘As I manoeuvred to avoid the wreckage, I was porpoising to try and clear my tail. I was tracking another wounded MiG when I suddenly spotted one of the others as he slid in on my six. He fired a burst with his 37 mm cannon and hit me in the wing. The shell went into the engine and messed up the hydraulic unit in the accessory section, and I suddenly lost rudder and flaps, and only had partial aileron control. The only things that really worked were the elevators. I dove toward the cloud deck below at 13,000 ft, and he was 500 ft behind me, and still shooting. My wingman finally got back in the fight and came in on him, and he pulled away as I went into the clouds’.
Fighting for control of the Panther
Williams was in serious trouble, fighting for control of the Panther as it dived towards the sea. ‘I came out of the clouds at around 400 ft and I was too low to eject — you had to be above 1200 ft and climbing to successfully eject from a Panther, so I was stuck with staying in the aeroplane, like it or not. I soon discovered it was uncontrollable below 170 knots, so I had to maintain high speed regardless’. It also did not help that several of the destroyers escorting the task force opened fire on Williams as he passed a few hundred feet overhead. ‘Fortunately, I was low enough that they didn’t have a chance to really aim, so nobody hit me’.
Aboard Oriskany, the flightdeck was cleared for what was obviously going to be a crash landing. ‘I didn’t want to ditch, because I wasn’t sure I could do it successfully in my damaged aeroplane. I also knew that the water was so cold I wouldn’t last ten minutes even in my poopy suit’. The Panther’s normal landing speed was 105 knots. Williams kept the bucking jet under control as he made a straight-in approach, maintaining 170 knots. ‘The captain of Oriskany headed the ship just away from the wind, which gave me the opportunity to come aboard, and I caught the three wire and shut her down’.
263 holes in the aeroplane
Williams climbed out of the riddled jet and stared at the damage, surprised he had made it back. ‘They counted 263 holes in the aeroplane, mostly from 23 mm hits — there were some 37 mm hits too, including the one in the wing that went into the engine. I had fired off all 760 rounds of 20 mm I had aboard. I wouldn’t have had a chance if I hadn’t been armed with those 20 mm cannon’. After removing everything of value from BuNo 125459, the deck crew heaved the broken carcass overboard and it disappeared into the dark sea.
Credited with just one kill
Despite his outstanding performance, Royce Williams would officially be credited with just one kill and a probable damaged following this mission.
The reason for this was simple. TF 77 had been operating just 90 miles from Vladivostok when this action took place. With radar tracking the communist aircraft as they approached from that direction, there was little doubt that these were Soviet MiGs. There was real fear at the highest levels of US and UN command that an ‘incident’ between US and Soviet forces such as this one could change the ‘police action’ of Korea into World War 3. After cautioning Williams to tell no one about the fight, Vice Adm Robert P Briscoe, Commander Naval Forces Far East, informed him that the National Security Agency (NSA) had a team aboard the cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) that had recorded all Russian radio traffic leading up to and during the fight. The NSA had proof that he had downed at least three of the MiGs, and that the fourth had crash landed.
The Russians reveals that Williams had indeed downed four MiG-15s
Following the end of the Cold War, in 1992 the Russians revealed that Williams had indeed downed four MiG-15s, flown by Capts Belyakov and Vandalov and Lts Pakhomkin and Tarshinov of the VVS-PVO (the Air Defence Forces of the Red Air Force). Vandalov, Pakhomkin and Tarshinov had all been directly shot down in the fight, while Belyakov, the flight leader, had been badly shot up by Williams and crash-landed as soon as he was over Soviet territory, being killed in the resulting crash. Royce Williams was the top-scoring Naval Aviator of the ‘forgotten war’ in a performance unequalled since.
F9F Panther Units of the Korean War is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force