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Navy Cross awarded to retired Navy pilot

It’s been called one of the greatest, if not the greatest, feat in naval aviation history. But almost no one has known about it, or the person who achieved it until now.

In front of theAir & Space Museum on Friday a ceremony was held and an honor bestowed on a very special American. As hundreds watched, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro pinned the Navy Crossonto Capt. Royce Williams.

The event that led to this day happened 70 years ago. Then-Lt. Williams and his squadron were flying patrol near the coast of North Korea, when members of his squadron spotted a group of Soviet MiG fighters. The rest of the squadron had to return to base because of mechanical issues, leaving Williams alone to battle the enemy.

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“They shot first. So it was on and game on and I didn’t have a choice," Williams said after the ceremony.

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Mike Damron
/
KPBS
Capt. Royce Williams (USN, Ret.) is shown inside the Air & Space Museum after the ceremony where he received the Navy Cross on Jan. 20, 2023.

For the next 35 minutes, Williams fought the MiGs in an F9F-5 Panther, what he called an inferior plane to the MiGs, but...

“I had a better gun sight and reliable guns," Williams said.

He would use those guns to shoot down four MiGs in what was the longest dogfight in the history of the Navy. His airplane sustained 263 shots, but Williams was still able to get it back to his ship, the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, and safely land.

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The Soviet Union was not officially involved in the Korean War and the Navy feared publicity about the event would force the Soviets’ hand and cause them to enter the war in support of North Korea. So, Williams got an order.

“I was told to never say anything about it, never," he said.

Williams received the Silver Star, and that was that — until many years later, when Congressman Darrell Issa (R, CA 48) learned of Williams' heroism. He began pressing the Navy to upgrade the Star to the Navy Cross.

It finally reached the desk of Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, who says it was not a tough decision.

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Mike Damron
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro is shown next to Capt. Royce Williams (USN, Ret.) in front of the Air & Space Museum on January 20, 2023.

“It didn’t take much to convince me that this was the right course of action. This man deserves the Navy Cross in every possible way," Del Toro said.

After the ceremony, Capt. Williams returned to his home in Escondido. You may know that “escondido” means hidden; a notable irony for one of its most distinguished residents, whose astonishing act of heroism is hidden no longer.