On this day in 2005, retired Navy Vice Admiral William “Bill” Lawrence passes away. Decades earlier, Lawrence had been a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton.
He was one of the highest-ranking members of our military to be held in that infamous prison.
Trouble began in June 1967. Lawrence was then serving as commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 143, but a June 28 mission to drop bombs on Nam Dinh went horribly awry. Lawrence’s F-4B Phantom was hit. He managed to get off his bombs before his plane went into a spin and he was forced to bail out.
Lawrence made it safely to the ground, but he was captured by North Vietnamese farmers almost instantly. Lawrence would prove to be one of the more senior officers being held by the Vietnamese. He knew he must fulfill his duty to maintain discipline and morale among his men.
“He repeatedly paid the price of being perceived by the enemy as a source of their troubles through his ‘high crime’ of leadership,” his fellow POW James B. Stockdale later said, “[but he] could not be intimidated and never gave up the ship.”
The prisoners developed a code to communicate with each other by tapping on the walls. They taught each other French, Portuguese, or history. They did complicated math problems in their head. They had to keep their brains going, moving, active.
On one occasion, Lawrence was thrown into a small cell known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” Its concrete walls, lack of ventilation, and tin roof made it dark and excessively hot. Sixty days in that hole nearly killed Lawrence, but he spent his time writing a poem about his home state.
Today, “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee” is the official state poem.
Lawrence was finally released as a part of Operation Homecoming in 1973. When he stepped off a plane in Tennessee, he found his parents and his three children waiting for him. His wife wasn’t there. She’d gotten a divorce and was already remarried.
Her father was a World War II flying ace who’d also gone missing in action. Apparently, she couldn’t do that twice.
Lawrence was forced to move in with another ex-POW, but then two wonderful blessings came: First, Lawrence fell in love with his physical therapist and got remarried. Second, Lawrence’s youngest daughter—still a teenager—decided that she wanted to move in with her dad.
“I told my mother I wanted to have an opportunity to get to know my father,” Wendy Lawrence explains. “To make up for lost time.”
And make up for lost time, they did! The two developed a bond, and Wendy went on to attend the Naval Academy, just like her dad. When she graduated, she received her diploma from her father, who was then serving as superintendent of the Naval Academy. Wendy went on to flight school and became the first female pilot deployed to the Indian Ocean.
Then Wendy fulfilled one goal that her father had wanted, but never accomplished. Long ago, Lawrence had applied for the Project Mercury space program, but he’d been turned away because of a heart murmur.
In 1995, Wendy lived her dad’s dream. He sat in the stands at Cape Canaveral, Florida, watching as his daughter soared into the skies aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor.
Health problems would plague Lawrence’s last two decades of life. It forced him into early retirement just when he’d been on the verge of achieving a four-star rank.
But his life remained inspirational to his family.
“One thing I’ve learned from my dad is that we can go a lot farther than we think we can,” his daughter Laurie wrote. “I learned just to persevere and hold to love and duty. I’ve always been so thankful I can be proud of who my dad is. That’s such a gift.”
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Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Adam Bernstein, William P. Lawrence Dies (Wash. Post; Dec. 5, 2005)
Bradley Olson, William Lawrence, 75; Held as POW for 6 Years During Vietnam War (L.A. Times; Dec. 13, 2005)
Colin Burgess, Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America's First Astronauts (2011)
Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by 33 American Soldiers Who Fought It (Al Santoli ed. 1981).
Neal Thompson, A Hero & A Father; William Lawrence faces adversity still (Baltimore Sun; Mar. 7, 1999)