In 1958, William Lawrence became the first naval aviator to fly twice the speed of sound in a Navy aircraft, the F8U-3 Crusader III. As Michener suggests, he was one of the finest aviators ever to come out of the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Md. He later flew more than 100 combat missions over Vietnam and led the "hard-core" resistance group as an American POW in Hanoi.
Born in Nashville, Tenn., on 13 January 1933, William Porter Lawrence graduated first in his high school class and also lettered in football, basketball, and baseball. As a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, Lawrence continued to play three varsity sports and became class president and Brigade Commander in his final year.
Upon graduating from the academy in 1951, he attended flight training at NAS Pensacola, Fla., and pinned on his wings on 7 November 1952. As a pilot with VF-193, he participated in two deployments on Oriskany (CVA 43) in 1953. After attending the Naval Aviation Safety School at the University of Southern California, he became a test pilot at Pax River, where he served until 1959.
A series of staff and operational assignments followed, including service in VF-101, VF-14, and VF-121. In July 1966 he deployed to Vietnam, first as executive officer of VF-143 and then in June 1967 as that squadron's commander. On a flak suppression mission for a major raid against Nam Dinh, North Vietnam, his aircraft received crippling fire as he pulled out of his bombing run. He ejected over the target area and ended up being a POW for the next six years.
During his internment, he emerged as one of the most effective POW leaders. 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. VAdm. James B. Stockdale, the senior ranking Navy POW, later wrote in his evaluation of Lawrence that "he repeatedly paid the price of being perceived by the enemy as a source of their troubles through his 'high crime' of leadership," but "could not be intimidated and never gave up the ship."
After his repatriation, the Navy promoted him to rear admiral in 1974 and he went on to serve as Commander Light Attack Wing, U.S. Pacific Fleet. He later became Director, Aviation Programs Division, and Assistant Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare).
Lawrence's intellect was as keen as his piloting skills. At the Naval Academy, he placed 8th out of a class of 725. As a POW, he taught a popular course on American history to other prisoners, and after the war, graduated with distinction from the National War College. Recognizing his academic prowess, the Navy appointed him as Superintendent of the Naval Academy in 1978 and promoted him to vice admiral in 1980. He commanded the Third Fleet from September 1981 to September 1983. His final assignment in the Navy was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Manpower, Personnel and Training).
VAdm. Lawrence died on 2 December 2005. "Never flew a man so high, never suffered a man so much and never inspired a man so many in Navy blue as Vice Admiral Bill Lawrence," stated Admiral Mike Mullen at Lawrence's funeral. "His legacy will endure for as long as we have a Navy to put to sea."