Royce Williams was a true “Top Gun” 10 years before Tom Cruise was born.
Williams shot down four Soviet fighter planes on a cold November day in 1952, becoming a legend no one would hear about for more than 50 years.
At a ceremony in California on Friday, the now 97-year-old former naval aviator was awarded the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest military honor.
According to Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro, Williams’ case “stood out above all others” among the many proposals he has reviewed to upgrade sailors’ awards. His actions were clearly extraordinary and more closely aligned with the criteria describing a higher medal, in my opinion.”
“Freedom isn’t cheap,” Del Toro said. “It comes from the sacrifice of all those who have served and continue to serve in today’s military. That day, your actions kept you free. In Task Force 77, they kept your shipmates free. They did, in fact, keep all of us free.”
Here’s what Williams did to earn it.
Outgunned and outnumbered
Williams was flying the F9F Panther, the US Navy’s first jet fighter, on a mission during the Korean War on November 18, 1952.
He took off from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, which was part of a task force in the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea, 100 miles off North Korea’s coast.
Williams, then 27, and three other fighter pilots were sent on a combat air patrol over the Korean Peninsula’s most northern tip, near the Yalu River, which separates North Korea from China. To the northeast is Russia, which was part of the Soviet Union at the time and backed North Korea in the conflict.