VADM William “Bill” Porter Lawrence, USN, one of the leading aviation officers during the Cold War and a loving father and husband, is well thought of and admired by many. This Nashville native graduated eighth of 725 from the US Naval Academy in 1951 and served as class president and brigade commander, the highest rank a midshipman can obtain. He and classmate Ross Perot helped draft the academy’s Code of Honor. After earning his wings a year later, he flew with several fighter squadrons and became the first naval aviator to fly twice the speed of sound (1,300 miles per hour) in the Navy’s F8U “Cruiser III” plane, on September 15, 1958. He applied for the initial astronaut selection in 1959 and made it to the final 32 candidates for the Project Mercury Program but a heart murmur disqualified him. As his career progressed, his family grew to include three children: William Junior, Laurie M. and Wendy B.
Later in 1959, he reported as Flag Lieutenant to Commander Carrier Division Six and in October 1960, became the Assistant Operations Officer for VF-1, Detachment “A.” He received positions of increasing responsibility as navigator on board USS NEWPORT NEWS (CA-148), maintenance officer of VF-14, and senior aide to Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Strike Command.
He was the executive officer of FIGHTER SQUADRON 143 aboard USS CONSTELLATION when the enemy shot his F4-B Phantom II plan down over Nam Dinh in North Vietnam. He suffered from torture, brutal beatings, and isolation as the senior ranking officer in Camp Vegas at Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by the POWs, from June 28, 1967, until March 4, 1973–2076 days. He enjoyed antagonizing his captors by smiling and doing other things to suggest that they had not broken his spirit. When the leadership objected to the prisoners having a religious service, they punished them by transferring them away from the compound and putting them in solitary confinement. When the other prisoners learned of this, they sang the “Star Spangled Banner” in unison. CDR Lawrence and some of the other senior ranking POWs had a two days fast to protest. Some years later the camp commander allowed the prisoners to worship. He shared his internment with James Bailey, his backseater, John S. McCain, the son and grandson of prominent admirals and James Stockdale. Lawrence encouraged and inspired his men and did all that he could to protect them.
When a guard caught him trying to pass a note to Jerry Denton, the ranking officer, Lawrence spent the next 60 days in the “hot box,” a six-foot-square-cell without lighting and ventilation. He endured day time temperatures of over 100 degrees. To overcome his physical pain, heat sores, and the isolation, he compiled poetry mentally. One of his works, “Oh Tennessee, Oh Tennessee” later became the state poem of Tennessee by act of legislation in 1973. After his return to the United States, he discovered that his wife Anne had left him. Lawrence went on to remarry Diane Wilcox Rauch, graduate with distinction from the National War College, earn a master’s degree from George Washington University, and have a successful career culminating with him reaching the rank of Vice Admiral and becoming a deputy CNO.
Had Bill Lawrence retired after his release, there would have been much to admire about him and to learn from his career. His experiences up to that point teach us (1) real success involves helping others along the way, (2) effective leaders take care of their subordinates even in the face of difficult circumstances, (3) trying times reveal one’s true character, and (4) staying focused and keeping one’s mind engaged are critical to surviving life’s most unbearable and/or life threatening conditions.