Royce Williams is pictured with a replica of the plane in which he shot down four Soviet MiG fighter jets in 1952.
VonBrad Landon, CNN
Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT) January 21, 2023
Seoul, South Korea (CNN)Royce Williams was a real top gun 10 years before Tom Cruise was born.
On a cold November day in 1952, Williams shot down four Soviet fighter jets - and became a legend not to be heard of for more than 50 years.
The 97-year-old former naval aviator was presented with the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest military decoration, at a ceremony Friday in California.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro said Friday that among the many proposals he has considered to improve seafarers' awards, Williams' case "stands out from all other criteria describing a higher medal."
"Freedom doesn't come cheap," Del Toro said. “It comes through the sacrifice of all who have served and continue to serve in today's military. Your actions that day have kept you free. You kept your shipmates in Task Force 77 free. In fact, they kept us all free.”
Here's what Williams did to earn that honor.
Inferior and inferior
On November 18, 1952, Williams flew the F9F Panther - the US Navy's first jet fighter - on a mission during the Korean War.
He launched from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which was operating with three other carriers in a task force in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, 100 miles off the coast of North Korea.
Williams, then 27, and three other fighter pilots were assigned to a fighter air patrol over the northernmost part of the Korean Peninsula near the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. To the northeast is Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, which supported North Korea in the conflict.
As the four US Navy jets flew their patrol, the leader of the group suffered mechanical problems and returned to the offshore task force with his wingman.
That left Williams and his wingman alone on the mission.
Then, to their surprise, seven Soviet MiG-15 fighter jets were identified heading towards the US task force.
A Grumman F9F Panther fighter jet fires its guns during an attack on the North Korean port city of Hungnam in 1951.
"They just haven't come out of Russia and engaged us in any way before," Williams said in a 2021Interview mit dem American Veterans Center.
Cautious task force commanders ordered the two US Navy jets to position themselves between the MiGs and the US warships.
As he did so, four of the Soviet MiGs turned on Williams and opened fire, he recalled.
He said he fired on the tail MiG, which then fell out of the Soviet four-plane formation while Williams' wingman followed the Soviet jet down.
At that point, the US commanders of the aircraft carrier ordered him not to attack the Soviets, he said.
"I said, 'I'm engaged,'" Williams recalled in the interview.
No choice but to fight
Williams said he also knew because the Soviet jets were faster than his that if he tried to abort they would catch and kill him.
"Back then, the MiG-15 was the best fighter plane in the world," climbing and diving faster and faster than the American jets, he said in an interview.
His plane is designed for air-to-ground combat, not dogfights, he said.
But now he was in one, not just one, but six Soviet jets, while the other three MiGs that had broken off earlier were returning.
What ensued was more than half an hour of dogfighting, in which Williams constantly twisted and swerved - the only area in which the F9F could compete with the Soviet aircraft - to keep from allowing the superior MiGs to turn their weapons on him.
"I was on automatic, I did what I was trained to do," he said.
That was how the Soviets were.
"But sometimes ... they made mistakes," Williams said.
One flew at him, but then stopped firing and dived under him. Williams suspected that his pilot was killed by his gunfire.
And he described how another MiG came right in front of him, he hit it with his gunfire and it broke up, prompting Williams to maneuver sharply to avoid the debris and its pilot as the plane broke apart.
During the course of the engagement, Williams fired all 760 rounds of 20mm cannon shells carried by the F9F, according to a report on the engagement on the US Navy Memorial website.
But the Soviets also scored hits on Williams by disabling his rudder and wing control surfaces, leaving only the elevators in the rear of the plane usable for him to maneuver the jet up and down.
Luckily, he said, at this point he was steering in the direction of the U.S. task force offshore. But one of the remaining Soviet jets was still hot on his heels.
He said he was flying in an up and down roller coaster pattern, with bullets flying above and below him as he moved, and the Soviet pilot was trying to get a clear shot.
Williams' wingman rejoined the fight at this point, mounting on the Soviet and driving him off, according to the Navy Memorial report.
But Williams still had some difficult flights ahead of him to get the damaged jet back on board the aircraft carrier.
The USS Oriskany is pictured off New York City in December 1950 while underway to conduct carrier qualifications.
First, since the task force feared Soviet fighter jets that might attack them, their reinforced air defenses initially thought Williams' F9F was a MiG, and destroyers guarding the American aircraft carriers opened fire on him.
Williams said his commander quickly put a stop to it and removed a hazard.
Despite this, Williams had to get his jet onto the carrier's deck, which he normally did at an airspeed of 105 knots (120 mph). But he already knew that if he flew less than 170 knots (195 mph) his plane would stall and crash into the icy sea.
And he couldn't turn to line up with the bearer. So the ship's captain decided to take the extraordinary step of rotating the carrier to align with Williams.
It worked. He slammed onto the deck, catching the third and final safety wire.
On the aircraft carrier's deck, the Navy crew counted 263 holes in William's plane. It was in such bad shape that it was pushed off the ship into the sea, according to the Navy Memorial report.
But when the plane disappeared under the waves, something else had to come into play - the fact that the US-Soviet dogfight was taking place at all.
Fear of another world war
According to the Navy Memorial website, news of Williams' exploits went all the way to the top, with then-President Dwight Eisenhower among senior US officials eager to speak with the pilot.
"After the battle, Williams was personally interviewed by several senior Navy admirals, the Secretary of Defense and also the President, after which he was ordered not to discuss his engagement because officials feared the incident could lead to a devastating increase in tensions between the two USA and the Soviet Union and could potentially ignite World War III," the website reads.
A US Department of Defense report on the incident also notes that US forces were trying out new communications listening devices that day. It was feared that disclosure of the Soviet role in combat would have hurt the US advantage.
Records of William's aerial combat were promptly classified by US officials and he was sworn to secrecy, meaning it would be more than five decades before his victories could be fully recognized.
In 1953 Williams was awarded a Silver Star, but the mention did not refer to Soviet aircraft, only "enemy" ones. And only three kills were mentioned. The fourth was not known until Russian records were released in the 1990s, the site says.
So it wasn't until 2002, when the records were released, that Williams was able to tell even those closest to him.
"For the remainder of his naval career and for decades after his retirement, the details of Williams' dogfight with Soviet MiGs over North Korea remained a mystery," the US Department of Defense said.
"When he was finally contacted by the government and told him his mission was declassified, the first person Williams said he was telling him was his wife."
In the years that followed, veterans groups who learned what he was doing said the Silver Star was an inadequate reward for Williams, and some said he should receive the military's highest decoration -- the Medal of Honor.
Last December, more than 70 years after the Korean War air battle, Del Toro said Williams Silver Star should be upgraded to Navy Cross.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, who pushed for Williams receiving the upgraded medal, called him "a top gun pilot like no other and an American hero for all time."
"It is the most unique American-Soviet dogfight in Cold War history to date," Issa said in a statement.
"The heroism and bravery he demonstrated for 35 harrowing minutes 70 years ago in the skies over the North Pacific and off the coast of North Korea saved the lives of his fellow pilots, shipmates and crew members. His story is one for the ages, but it is now fully told."
CNN's Haley Britzky contributed coverage.