Escondido resident Royce Williams, who is now 97 years old, was sworn to secrecy about one of the most epic days of his life.
It was 1952, during the Korean War, when then-Lieutenant Williams, a Navy pilot, was sent on a combat air patrol with three other naval aviators when they encountered seven hostile Soviet MiG-15s. Williams shot at the MiGs, and after they reconfigured, he realized he was the lone American left in the fight. Despite being outnumbered, Williams was able to shoot four of the MiGs down before returning to safety on an aircraft carrier. After the mission, he counted 263 bullet holes in his own plane.
“I was just like a machine,” Williams said. "I was just doing what I was trained to do,"
The United States government decided to classify the operation over concerns about publicly acknowledging the Soviets' presence in the Korean War. For decades, Williams was not allowed to talk about what happened to anyone, but about 20 years ago, the records were declassified and word started to travel about Williams’ encounter with the Soviet planes.
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U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, who represents the 48th Congressional District, worked with several naval officers to petition the Pentagon to upgrade Williams’ previous Silver Star he had received for that mission to a higher honor.
“If we don't recognize the valor of our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen sooner or later, then we miss the opportunity to thank them for their service,” Issa said.
Ultimately, Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro approved upgrading Williams’ award to a Navy Cross, one of the highest awards for combat valor in the United States military.
At a ceremony at the San Diego Air and Space Museum on Friday, presenters said the 35-minute dogfight Williams was involved in was one of the greatest feats in naval aviation history. Del Toro said Williams’ actions that day saved countless American lives from enemy attack.
Williams said he never expected to be recognized for what happened. He also said he wished his wife and his dad, who have since passed away, could have been at the ceremony to see him receive the award. But, he said, he was happy his sons and his pilot friends were able to be in attendance.
“It feels great," Williams said. "I never expected anything.”