William Porter "Bill" Lawrence (January 13, 1930 – December 2, 2005), was a decorated United States Navy Vice Admiral and Naval Aviator who served as Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from 1978 to 1981.
Lawrence was a noted pilot who became the first Naval Aviator to fly twice the speed of sound in a naval aircraft and was also one of the final candidates for the Mercury space program. During the Vietnam War, Lawrence was shot down while on a combat mission and spent six years as a prisoner of war, from 1967 to 1973. During this time he became noted for his resistance to his captors. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Lawrence served as the school's Superintendent from 1978 to 1981.
Early life and education
Lawrence's parents and grandparents were from Tennessee. Lawrence's father Robert Landy "Fatty" Lawrence (1903–1976) attended Vanderbilt University, where he was a noted student-athlete who graduated in 1924. Lawrence was a native of Nashville, and attended local schools. When in the fourth grade, Lawrence composed a poem called Little Fly:
- Little Fly
- I saw a little fly up on the wall.
- I said to him "Little fly, aren't you afraid you'll fall?"
- He looked at me a minute, then winked his eye.
- And then he shifted into second, and then into high.
Lawrence distinguished himself as a student athlete at Nashville's West High School, and in 1947 turned down a scholarship at Yale University to attend the United States Naval Academy.
Lawrence stood out as a varsity athlete in three sports at the Naval Academy, excelling in football, basketball, and baseball. During his time at the Academy, he held several high-ranking midshipman offices, including Commander of the Brigade of Midshipmen, President of the Class of 1951, while also graduating number 8 academically out of a class of 725. His other major accomplishments included helping to establish the honor concept governing midshipman's conduct. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1951. Ensign Lawrence continued on at the Naval Academy as Aide to the Commandant of Midshipmen until September 1951 when he reported to flight training.
Lawrence received his "Wings of Gold" as a Naval Aviator in 1952. After completing advanced flight training, All Weather Flight School, and Jet Training, then-Lieutenant Lawrence served as an F2H Banshee pilot with VF-193 at NAS Moffett Field from March 1953 to October 1955. During this time, he deployed to Korea aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany (CVA-34) from March to April 1953. He attended the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at the Naval Air Test Center, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Student Award with the Test Pilot School Class 16. When the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established the manned spaceflight program, Lawrence became part of Project Mercury and made it to the final round of candidates. He was released from the program only because of a small heart murmur discovered during flight training.
In 1967, then-Commander Lawrence was serving as commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 143 (VF-143), aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CV-64). On 28 June 1967, Lawrence and his radar intercept officer, Lieutenant, junior grade James W. Bailey, were flying an F-4B Phantom II aircraft, Bureau Number 152242, while leading an anti-aircraft suppression section during a raid northwest of Nam Dinh, North Vietnam. Their aircraft was subsequently struck by an 85 mm round while rolling in on target. Despite failing hydraulics, Lawrence and Bailey released their bombs, but part of the aircraft's tail section separated while attempting to pull out of a dive. Both officers were forced to eject, were captured, and were held as prisoners of war at the Hỏa Lò Prison – which the prisoners nicknamed "Hanoi Hilton" – until 1973, during which time they suffered repeated torture and beatings. Along with fellow prisoner, Naval Aviator and Commander (later Vice Admiral) James Stockdale, Lawrence became noted for resistance to his captors. Additionally, he memorized every POW by name and rank while in captivity. He developed a code by tapping on the prison walls to communicate with other prisoners. Bailey was released on 18 February 1973 and Lawrence on 4 March 1973. Another fellow inmate was future Presidential candidate and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who was also a Navy Commander and Naval Aviator at the time. In Lawrence's obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Senator McCain stated, "He's probably the greatest man I've ever known in my life," and that it was the former's "...constant, steadfast, inspirational, yet very rational leadership that guided many of us through some very difficult times."
He was among the 591 Americans released as part of "Operation Homecoming."
After promotion to Rear Admiral in July 1974, VADM Lawrence served as Commander, Light Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet at Naval Air Station Lemoore, California. Subsequently, he served as the Director, Aviation Programs Division and Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare) in the Pentagon. He was promoted to Vice Admiral on 1 August 1980. VADM Lawrence assumed command of the U.S. Third Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in September 1981, the Fleet which Admiral Halsey commanded in World War II. In 1983, while COMTHIRDFLT, he won the Hawaii Armed Forces singles tennis championship in the seniors division (over 45).
Admiral Lawrence served as Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy from August 1978 to August 1981. The Naval Academy was opened to women starting with the Class of 1980 (inducted July 1976). His daughter, Wendy Lawrence was part of the Class of 1981, the second USNA class to include female graduates. Like her father, she also became a Naval Aviator and later applied to become a NASA astronaut. Unlike her father, she was selected as an astronaut and subsequently flew multiple Space Shuttle missions. She retired from the Navy as a Captain.
Author of Tennessee State Poem
While a prisoner of war, Lawrence mentally composed poetry to help keep up his spirits. During a 60-day period of solitary confinement, he composed, by memory, the poem "Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee," in honor of his native state. In 1973, the Tennessee State Legislature adopted the poem as Tennessee's official state poem.
- Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee
What Love and Pride I Feel for Thee.
You Proud Ole State, the Volunteer,
Your Proud Traditions I Hold Dear.
- I Revere Your Heroes
Who Bravely Fought our Country's Foes.
Renowned Statesmen, so Wise and Strong,
Who Served our Country Well and Long.
- I Thrill at Thought of Mountains Grand;
Rolling Green Hills and Fertile Farm Land;
Earth Rich with Stone, Mineral and Ore;
Forests Dense and Wild Flowers Galore;
- Powerful Rivers that Bring us Light;
Deep Lakes with Fish and Fowl in Flight;
Thriving Cities and Industries;
Fine Schools and Universities;
Strong Folks of Pioneer Descent,
Simple, Honest, and Reverent.
- Beauty and Hospitality
Are the Hallmarks of Tennessee.
- And O'er the World as I May Roam,
No Place Exceeds my Boyhood Home.
And Oh How Much I Long to See
My Native Land, My Tennessee.
- Vietnam Air Losses, Chris Hobson, Midland Publishing, Hinckley, UK, c2001, p.106, ISBN 1-85780-115-6
- "Tennessee: State Poem". Web Guides. Library of Congress. Retrieved 8 January 2012.
Awards and decorations
|Naval Aviator badge|
|Navy Distinguished Service Medal with three award stars|
|Silver Star with two award stars|
|Legion of Merit|
|Distinguished Flying Cross|
|Bronze Star with "V" device|
|Purple Heart with award star|
|Air Medal with Award numeral 3|
|Joint Service Commendation Medal|
|Navy Commendation Medal with "V" device and award star|
|Combat Action Ribbon|
|Navy Unit Commendation with service star|
|Prisoner of War Medal|
|National Defense Service Medal with service star|
|Korean Service Medal with service star|
|Vietnam Service Medal with three service stars|
|Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation|
|United Nations Korea Medal|
|Vietnam Campaign Medal|
|Korean War Service Medal|
- In 1984, the NCAA selected him for their highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Award, recognizing VADM Lawrence as one "For whom competitive athletics in college and attention to physical well-being have been important factors in a distinguished career of national significance and achievement."
- In 2000, the Naval Academy recognized Lawrence's contributions to his alma mater by presenting him with one of its Distinguished Graduate Awards.
- In 2004, Admiral Lawrence was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, in recognition of his athletic achievements both in high school and college.
- In 2009, the U.S. Navy named the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) in his honor, sponsored by his widow and daughters.
- On 17 October 2008, a bronze statue of Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence was dedicated at the Naval Academy. The statue was a gift of the Naval Academy graduate and business tycoon H. Ross Perot.
- VADM Lawrence awards
- Theodore Roosevelt Award recipients
- "Photo Release -- Northrop Grumman-Built William P. Lawrence Christened; Legacy of Former POW Honored". GlobeNewswire. April 17, 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-17.
Lawrence is survived by his second wife Diane Wilcox Rauch, daughters Wendy and Laurie, son William Jr. and stepson Frederick.
Wendy B. Lawrence followed her father into the Navy and attained the rank of Captain before becoming an astronaut. Her sister, Dr. Laurie Lawrence, attended Vanderbilt University and is a physician at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.