Vice-Admiral William P. Lawrence, who died Dec. 2 at the age of 75, was a lot of things to a lot of people.
One “achievement” he enjoyed talking about was his daughter, Capt. Wendy Lawrence, who became an astronaut and mission specialist. The admiral, a test pilot and first Naval Aviator to fly twice the speed of sound, had been selected for the Mercury program but was disqualified by a minor heart murmur. He said that seeing his daughter go into space “compensates a lot for the difficult things I’ve faced.”
One of those things was nearly six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam’s Hoa La Prison – the infamous Hanoi Hilton – where he was tortured severely, but where he wrote a verse which has become the official poem of his native Tennessee. “Sir Walter Scott had genius, but I had time,” he said. Among his fellow prisoners were the heroic Vice-Admiral James B. Stockdale, who died earlier this year, and Sen. John McCain.
At Hoa La, he helped to develop the tapping-coughing-sniffing communications system used by the POWs, who were kept in isolation at the time. When the Communists discovered his role, they put him in a small, tin-roofed cell called “The Black Hole of Calcutta” where, for two terrible months, he competed with enormous rats for food scraps. It was there that he wrote the poem about his boyhood home in the South.
McCain, whose cell was next to Lawrence’s, summed the man up: “He encouraged and sustained those of us who needed it and never seemed to need it himself. He’s probably the greatest man I’ve ever known.”
Shortly after arriving back on U.S. soil, Lawrence learned that his wife had left him to marry the Episcopal priest who had comforted her during his absence. He remarried, to Diane Rauch, a physical therapist who was helping McCain, and is survived by her.
Lawrence held several top Pentagon appointments after returning to the United States. At one point he was aide to Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, “father” of the F-14 Tomcat fighter, and was superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1978 to 1981, when his daughter was a midshipman. He assumed command of the Third Fleet in the fall of 1981, retiring in 1986 as chief of naval personnel.
Adm. Lawrence had a stroke some 10 years ago from which he never fully recovered, but two weeks before his death he completed a memoir, “Tennessee Patriot,” scheduled for publication next year by the Naval Institute Press.