William P. Lawrence Dies; Navy Admiral

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

William P. Lawrence, 75, a retired Navy vice admiral who was among the highest-ranking members of the armed forces held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and who later served three years as superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, died Dec. 2 at his home in Crownsville. He had a stroke a decade ago.

Early on, Adm. Lawrence was a test pilot and the first naval aviator to fly twice the speed of sound -- 1,300 mph. In the late 1950s, he was a Navy nominee for Project Mercury, which would lift John Glenn and Alan Shepard to orbit and fame as the first Americans in space. Adm. Lawrence was disqualified when a minor heart murmur was discovered.

During the Vietnam War, he was commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 143 when he was shot down in North Vietnam in June 1967 and held as a prisoner of war until March 1973. Among others in the prison were John McCain, who went on to become a U.S. senator from Arizona, and future Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale.

Adm. Lawrence once described one of his torturers at Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton: "A professional jailer before the war, old Strap and Bar, also known as Pig Eye, soon went to work on me. The flesh was literally stripped from my ankles from writhing in the irons. I still carry the cigarette burns on my arms which are the result of a torture session."

At other moments, Adm. Lawrence said, he and other captives crafted playing cards from toilet tissue. They whispered to one another about their favorite hobbies, from European languages to Civil War history (Adm. Lawrence's specialty). He kept his mind sharp by trying to recall names of grade-school friends, thinking up and solving math problems, and writing poetry in his head.

As he later joked: "Sir Walter Scott had genius. But I got time."

One piece of verse he created while in isolation became, after his release, the official poem of his home state, Tennessee.

Adm. Lawrence was among the 591 Americans released as part of "Operation Homecoming." Shortly after arriving on U.S. soil, he learned that his wife had left him for the Episcopal priest who had comforted her during his absence. He soon remarried, to a physical therapist then helping McCain.

Adm. Lawrence received several top Pentagon appointments. He also served as Naval Academy superintendent from 1978 to 1981, a time when his daughter Wendy graduated from the institution. Wendy Lawrence became a NASA astronaut and mission specialist and also was a key reason for her father's eventual support for women in the military.

He later said that seeing his daughter go into space -- once his chief dream -- "compensates a lot for the difficult things I've faced in my life."

William Porter Lawrence was born Jan. 13, 1930, in Nashville. His father, Nashville's sewer and water director, had been a standout football player at Vanderbilt University and pushed his sons to excel in athletics and academics.

Adm. Lawrence played three varsity sports at the Naval Academy, was president of the Class of 1951 and ranked eighth academically in a class of 725. As a midshipman, he had a major role in crafting the school's Honor Concept, a codified system that replaced the former habit of settling matters of honor with fists.

Adm. Lawrence became a test pilot and eventually a Navy nominee for Project Mercury. He was among the final 32 candidates, but his time in the heat chamber, with temperatures rising to 120, revealed the minor heart problem.

He returned to dangerous test flying, but his wife, the former Anne Williams, began to object loudly. According to a Baltimore Sun article, her father had been shot down over the Philippines during World War II and was missing for months. Haunted by that, she wanted her husband at home more -- or at least in the sky less.

He briefly was personal aide to Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, a future chief of naval operations, and held a series of shipboard duties.

During the Vietnam War, he became a combat flier. On the day he was knocked out of the sky, he was participating in a mission to unload cluster bombs on the town of Nam Dinh.

He lost control of his plane and, bailing at 1,800 feet, landed in a rice paddy. According to the Sun, hostile farmers took him and tossed him into a pen with a 400-pound hog.

At the prison, he helped form the tapping-coughing-sniffing communications system that kept the otherwise isolated captives in contact with one another. When the Communists discovered the system, they pitched Adm. Lawrence into a dank, tin-roofed cell. Prisoners called it "the Black Hole of Calcutta."

During the next two months, he developed heat sores. For nourishment, he competed with enormous rats for scraps of bread. To occupy his mind, he wrote the poem about his home state, which reads, partly:

O'er the world as I may roam,

No place exceeds my boyhood home.

After he returned to Tennessee, he recuperated at a naval hospital, remarried, received a master's degree in international affairs from George Washington University and was promoted to rear admiral.

He assumed command of the U.S. Third Fleet in Hawaii in fall 1981, about a year after his promotion. He retired in 1986 as deputy chief of naval operations for manpower, personnel and training. He also had the title of chief of naval personnel.

In retirement, he held a leadership chair at the Naval Academy for several years and also was president of the Association of Naval Aviation.

During the 1980s, he told the Sun about a deepening depression but said he was wary of treatment after meeting a doctor who "needed the help more than I did."

He said that writing and speaking about his POW years made him feel better. In 1995, he teamed with journalist Frank A. Aukofer to write a long report about the ways the military and the news media could benefit by working together. Some of their recommendations included embedding reporters with military units.

Two weeks before his death, he completed a memoir, "Tennessee Patriot," scheduled for publication next fall by the Naval Institute Press.

His decorations included four awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, three awards of the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star with Combat V and two awards of the Purple Heart.

Survivors include his wife of 31 years, Diane Wilcox Lawrence of Crownsville; three children from his first marriage, Navy Capt. Wendy Lawrence of Houston, William Lawrence Jr. of Yorba Linda, Calif., and Dr. Laurie Lawrence of Nashville; a stepson, Frederick Rauch of North Stonington, Conn.; a brother; and five grandchildren.

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