Something’s afoot in Washington that dovetails almost eerily well with the invigorating cultural moment we have found ourselves in once again courtesy of Tom Cruise and the makers of the “Top Gun” film franchise.
As we drive irresponsibly on the way home from movie theaters, calculating whether or not we are too old to actually join the Navy and fixate anew on the folklore that has always surrounded our nation’s most elite military aviators, a great, bipartisan thing is shaping up in Congress (believe it or not!). Something which will hopefully culminate in an even greater thing happening very soon in a White House ceremony.
In the midst of a determined campaign by retired military officials of all stripes dubbed “Operation Just Reward” that’s had its ups and downs mostly due to bureaucratic nonsense, Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, has grabbed the reins, built an impressive bipartisan coalition of fellow lawmakers, and introduced H.R. 5909 to fast-track the effort to authorize the president to give one of the greatest combat pilots the world has known, retired 97-year-old Capt. E. Royce Williams, just that in the form of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The tale of Capt. Williams’ real-life heroics and the reason why it has taken so long to secure for him the United States government’s highest and most prestigious military decoration could fit right in with the “Top Gun” franchise, should Mr. Cruise and company feel the urge to have another go. His story is long, intense and perhaps more fantastical than even the best Hollywood screenwriters could conjure.
As an aside, the very first commanding officer of the Navy’s advanced fighter tactics program that came to be called TOPGUN, retired Rear Adm. Roger Box, simply referred to him in an email exchange as “the most remarkable fighter pilot alive.” From what I can tell that sentiment seems very much to be shared in most relevant quarters.
Here’s the gist: 70 years ago this Nov. 18, one of the greatest and certainly the hardest-won dogfighting triumphs in military aviation history took place in international waters off the Korean coast. On that day, 27-year-old Williams found himself suddenly alone in the sky in his F9F-5 Panther, staring down seven superior Russian MiG-15s who had come to eat his lunch and move on to sink his nearby carrier, the USS Oriskany.
By any clear-headed calculation, lunch-eating is exactly what should have happened at that moment. Except it didn’t. What did ensue was a fierce 35-minute dogfight (note that most last mere seconds, and in exceptional cases have lasted up to five minutes) which ended with Williams safely back on the deck of the now-safe Oriskany after a dicey landing, 263 bullet holes and a 37-millimeter shell gash in his crippled Panther.
It didn’t end quite as well for at least six of the seven MiGs that set out to dispatch the outgunned American, as only one of them returned to base.
Though one of the most extraordinary feats in the history of military aviation had just happened, there was no celebration and no dramatic recounting from Capt. Williams to his shipmates. Quite the contrary. A frank conversation and handshake with his admiral was intended to be the last time the mission would be spoken of.
Turns out the circumstances and detail surrounding the dogfight, which ended so badly for the Soviets, contained a level of sensitivity that necessitated immediate top-secret classification. No one outside of a very small cadre of individuals knew a whiff of it for over 50 years until the Soviet Union fell and it was reported out of their archives. One of those in the loop, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was president-elect of the United States at the time. Eisenhower summoned Capt. Williams for a visit and a drink during a dramatic pre-inaugural fact-finding visit to Seoul because he wanted to meet the young aviator. Yet even in that rarified setting, the mission was not discussed.
When the U.S. government finally declassified it all in December of 2017, no one was more surprised than Capt. Williams’ wife and his brother — a fellow elite military aviator with whom he shared a long-running friendly pilots’ rivalry.
Capt. Williams had gone half a century without breaking his promise to his admiral. Half a century keeping secret something that could bring him immediate fame, fortune and a place among the greatest aviators in history. As 146 of his fellow Korean War heroes were honored and celebrated with well-deserved Medals of Honor, he was content with his Silver Star, knowing full well that an upgrade was out of the question for national security reasons.
But as Mr. Issa says, “America owes Williams a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid, and we won’t stop fighting until he is at least given the proper recognition he has not sought but richly deserves.”
Thanks to Mr. Issa’s laudable efforts to force the issue (remember, Capt. Williams is 97 and we don’t have all the time in the world here) and thanks to the longtime determination of his “Operation Just Reward” comrades plus the endorsements of over 100 retired general officers and admirals, The American Legion, Distinguished Flying Cross Society, Special Operations Association of America and others, the most deserved and overdue military honors upgrade of all time may well be imminent.
Let’s make it so. America could use a feel-good moment, and if anyone deserves a Hollywood ending it’s Capt. E. Royce Williams. Let’s challenge Congress to come together immediately upon return from the July 4 recess and pass H.R. 5909 and join with President Biden in the East Room post haste so that we can all witness the commander-in-chief draping the medal over his shoulders, together, mission finally accomplished.
• Christian Josi is a veteran political operative, writer and media consultant. He is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and CPAC, and currently serves as managing director of C. Josi and Company, a Virginia Beach-based boutique media and public affairs consultancy.