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Top Secret

The Forgotten Fighter Ace of the Korean War

Retired Navy Capt. E. Royce Williams has been keeping a secret for more than 50 years.

To his friends, family and shipmates, Williams was known as a decorated fighter pilot with a successful career in the Navy; he served for more than 30 years and flew more than 220 missions in Korea and Vietnam. However, even his wife wasn't aware of what he'd done on Nov. 18, 1952.

That morning, Williams was continuing what had become a daily routine aboard USS Oriskany (CV 34) off the coast of Korea during the Korean War. He was flying an F9F-5 Panther jet fighter over the skies of North Korea to attack targets in support of operations on the ground. On that particular morning, the only difference was that the targets were further north than usual — close to the country's border with the Soviet Union.

Despite a blizzard sweeping in with heavy winds and snow, Williams said the mission began successfully, with minor amounts of anti-aircraft fire. However, they hadn't expected a nearby Soviet base to notice their presence. Within minutes, the Soviets went to general quarters and scrambled seven MiG-15 fighters.

“Our combat information center notified us that there were inbound bogeys,” said Williams. “I spotted seven contrails coming from the north, and identified them as MiGs.”

The MiGs passed over Williams and his wingman, then circled around and split into two groups — four to the right, three to the left. Williams lost sight of the aircraft, and was ordered to move closer to the strike group to protect it in case the Soviets attacked.

That's when they reappeared.

“They dropped back in and started shooting,” said Williams. “Since they started the fight, I shot back.”

Williams quickly locked onto one of the aircraft and hit it, watching as it caught fire and billowed smoke on its way down. His wingman followed it, leaving Williams alone with the remaining MiGs.

In another intense moment, Williams was able to dodge the weapons fire and shoot back, downing another MiG.

“I'm on the defensive — I'm not really declaring war on them,” said Williams.

As he kept maneuvering to avoid being hit by hundreds of bullets, one of the Soviet pilots made a grave mistake, putting his aircraft directly in Williams' sights. Williams took the opportunity and opened fire, downing a third MiG.

On another turn, Williams felt his aircraft shake violently as it was hit by a MiG's 37mm cannon. The attack ripped holes in his fuselage, causing it to exploded, leaving his aircraft severely damaged.

As he struggled to stay in the fight, something else went wrong — Williams ran out of ammunition.

The remaining MiGs followed Williams as he turned his damaged aircraft into the storm, using the high winds to shield himself from the incoming rounds as he sped back toward his task force.

“I could see the bullets coming over me, and under me,” said Williams.

As he approached the task force, the remaining MiGs quickly retreated, assuming Williams wouldn't make it back to the Oriskany due to the blows his plane had suffered. Williams knew if he ejected, he'd end up freezing to death before he could be rescued, and his communications were malfunctioning due to the damage done to his aircraft. He had no choice but to attempt a landing.

To make matters worse, the task force had gone to general quarters with orders to open fire on any unidentified aircraft; because Williams couldn't communicate with them, they opened fire on his aircraft — luckily stopping once he got close enough to identify.

His Panther was unable to slow down or it would stall, so Williams had to make his landing at 200 mph. Somehow, he managed to catch a wire on the flight deck. He emerged from the cockpit unscathed.

The next day, the crew inspected his Panther and found 263 holes in the aircraft.

“You'd be surprised; it was almost like a training mission,” said Williams, recounting the story. “I was pretty stable.”

Soon after returning, Williams was ordered into a meeting with his admiral and a representative of a brand new government agency — the National Security Agency. The NSA had been testing new communications equipment that could intercept radio chatter from the Soviets. They knew if details from Williams' mission went public, the Soviets would realize that the United States could hear their communications. Therefore, Williams was ordered not to tell a soul about his mission; it was classified as "top secret."

For the rest of his naval career, and for decades after retirement, the details of Williams' dogfight with Soviet MiGs in the skies over North Korea remained a secret. When he was finally contacted by the government and told his mission was declassified, the first person Williams told was his wife.