On 17 April 2010, the U.S. Navy will christen USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, in Pascagoula, Mississippi – a fitting honor for a man whose legacy resonates deeply within the sea services:
“She was overawed by Bill Lawrence, perhaps the ablest flier, all things considered, that Pax River was to produce.” — Excerpt from Space by James Michener
In 1958 William Lawrence became the first naval aviator to fly twice the speed of sound in a Navy aircraft, and was one of the greatest naval aviators of his era. He also endured 6 years as a prisoner of war (POW) in Hanoi, where he provided other American POWs with inspirational leadership under the toughest of circumstances.
Lawrence was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1933, and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1947. At the academy Lawrence not only excelled in academics, graduating 8th out of a class of 725, but also in sports, lettering three varsity sports. He pinned on his wings of gold on 7 November 1952, and after two deployments with VF-193 became a test pilot at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.
In July 1966 he deployed to Vietnam, first as executive officer of VF-143 and later as that squadron’s commander. On a flak suppression mission for a major raid against Nam Dinh, North Vietnam, on 28 June 1967, his F-4 Phantom II received crippling fire as he pulled out of his bombing run. He ejected over the target area and became a prisoner of war.
During his internment he emerged as one of the most effective POW leaders, helping craft policy for other prisoners and refusing to be intimidated by abuse from the North Vietnamese. At Camp Vegas, the Vietnamese caught him passing a note to another Navy prisoner, Jeremiah Denton, and placed him in solitary confinement for 60 days to break his will. During the day, the temperature in the six-foot cell, known as Calcutta, rose to over 100 degrees, and heat sores soon covered Lawrence’s body. To get through the ordeal he composed the poem “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” which later became the state’s official poem.
After the war Lawrence served in a variety of significant command positions, including a tour as Superintendent of the Naval Academy and Commander Third Fleet. His decorations include two Distinguished Service Medals and three Silver Stars. Vice Admiral Lawrence died on 2 December 2005.
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