As the ships neared their targets, the U.S.S. Helena with a team from the National Security Agency aboard, detected radio traffic coming out of the Soviet Union, according to an account in the aviation magazine Flight Journal. The transmissions indicated that the carriers had been detected and Russian aircraft were preparing to intercept.
In response, the U.S.S. Oriskany scrambled four F9F-5 Panthers and launched them in quick succession. The F9F was an early model jet fighter used extensively in the Korean War. The single-seat, stubby looking aircraft was billed as inferior to its Russian MiG counterparts because of its slower, non-swept wing design.
As the flight of four broke the clouds, radio traffic indicated that enemy aircraft were approximately 80 miles north, but as the Russian MiG 15s came into view two of the Panthers had to return to the carrier. The flight lead had a mechanical malfunction, and his wingman was required to escort him home.
That left Lt. Royce Williams and his wingman Lt. junior grade David Rowlands up against seven MiG 15s in the skies over the sea of Japan. The Panthers were armed with 20mm cannons, while the Russians had similar armaments.
In the fierce dogfight that followed, Williams shot down four of the MiGs, a feat unheard of until that point in the war. Badly damaged, Williams was forced to fly too low to be able to eject. He barely made it back to the Oriskany for an emergency landing, and after tanking his aircraft on the flight deck, he emerged unscathed. Williams told Flight Journal that his Panther had over 260 holes in it from the Russian MiGs and it was so damaged that the flight crew merely pushed it into the sea instead of trying to salvage it.
Because of the sensitivity of the incident, the dogfight was downplayed. Williams was attributed one enemy kill while the flight lead, who returned to attack a descending MiG towards the end of the battle, was also given a kill, according to Flight Journal.
In the years following Williams’ fight over the Sea of Japan there were a number of incidents involving Soviet, U.S. and multi-national aircraft. During the Vietnam War, Russian pilots reportedly flew North Vietnamese MiGs against U.S. forces (something that also happened during the Korean war), and a number of U.S. spy aircraft were shot down or intercepted near or over the Soviet Union. In a more notable incident, former U.S. Air Force Pilot Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, albeit by a surface to air missile.