Bill Lawrence's saga of survival
Bill Lawrence lay still. Every time he moved, he only caused himself more pain. His body was covered with heat sores and cigarette burns.
He could barely stretch out in the cramped space of the dank prison shed. The air was stifling; outside, the August sun beat mercilessly on the shed’s tin roof.
Lawrence, 41 and a commander in the U.S. Navy, had been in the Hoa Lo maximum security prisonnicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton”for four years, ever since June 1967, when he had been shot down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam. Other soldiers, Lawrence knew, had gone insane from torture and isolation; he knew he had to keep his mind focused on something.
Already, he had stretched his mind to remember every possible detail of his life, from his boyhood on Nashville’s 18th Avenue to the recent events of his life in San Diego with his wife and three children. This time he would write poetry.
At Eakin Elementary School on Fairfax Avenue, he had read Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. The iambic tetrameter of Scott’s verse had stuck in his mind:
“The stag at eve had drunk his fill
Where danced the moon on Monan’s rill.”
Lawrence was determined to create a poem of his own. “I knew that [Scott] had genius,” Lawrence said later, “but I had time.”
In his imagination, Lawrence escaped from his sweltering cell. He returned to the mountains and lakes and the farms and forests of his native Tennessee.
He tried out lines and discovered that the meter of Scott’s poem was the same as “Oh Tennessee, my Tennessee.” Working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, Lawrence created his own Tennessee poem. After three weeks of adding and discarding lines, he had preserved in his mind a poem that satisfied him. Its final lines were:
“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.”
While he roasted in his box-like cell, 25 years ago this month, Lawrence created and committed to memory the verses that would eventually become Tennessee’s state poem. When, after 60 days, he was dragged from his cell, his mind was intact. The solitary confinement had been designed to break his will, but it had failed. If anything, it had made him tougher.
In all, Lawrence would endure six years of torture and imprisonment, including 14 months in solitary confinement. Before his release in 1973, he would lose 50 pounds, partially as a result of bouts with intestinal parasites. His body would be marked with shoulder-to-ankle scars, and he would lose all feeling in his legs and arms. His very survival would be proof of his personal discipline and determination.
When he returned to the United States, however, Lawrence, like his fellow Vietnam veterans, found a nation divided against itself. He had faced a hero’s struggles, but the welcome he received was not exactly what a hero would expect. Because for years there had been no dependable reports of his survival, his wife had divorced him and had remarried. His is the story of a soldier like many othersa man who struggled to save his life, only to discover that his personal life was very nearly falling apart.
Bill Lawrence was born Jan. 13, 1930. His father, Robert (“Fatty”) Lawrence, a former football star at Vanderbilt, went on to become the head of Nashville’s Water and Sewerage Services Department.
Billy began impressing people early. Adelaide Davis, who was one his teachers at Eakin School, recalls him as “just a darling little blue-eyed boy,” memorable for “a determined sort of application” that allowed him to excel scholastically and athletically. He was a patrol boy and a Cub Scout. “I knew from the third week I had him that he was going to succeed in something,” Davis says.
She can also recite, after all these years, one of Billy’s first poems, a fourth-grade effort called “Little Fly”:
I saw a little fly upon the wall
I said to him, “Little fly, aren’t you afraid you’ll fall?”
He looked at me a minute and then winked his eye
And then he shifted into second, and then into high.
There were four Lawrence boysBobby, Eddie, Billy, and Tommy. All played football, and the first three were stars at West High School. Billy once sustained a nasty gash above his eye, but he continued to play. The stitches had to be resewn again and again. Still, his modest, low-key manner impressed everybody.
“He was the kind of youngster other children’s parents loved,” says longtime friend Bill Turner, now first vice-president at Merrill Lynch. “He was like an older brother to me. When the older kids would kid me, Billy would take up for me. It doesn’t sound like much, but for a little kid it was a big deal.”
Lawrence was all-city in football and all-state in basketball. He was state tennis champion and a member of the state championship basketball team. He was also named president of the West student body and graduated first in his class.
World War II ended the summer before his junior year, but Lawrence was already fascinated with stories from the front. “I was a product of World War II,” Lawrence said recently. “All the exploits from that era really caught my fancy.”
He joined West High’s ROTC unit and became battalion commander. With the support of Sen. Kenneth McKellar, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy on July 7, 1947. Nobody doubted that Billy Lawrence would go far. Eventually, he would graduate eighth in a class of 724. In 1951 he would return to Nashville to deliver the commencement address at West High.
It was while he was attending the Academy that Billy met Anne Williams, whose father was a pilot and a physics instructor. She knew about Navy life, its rootlessness, its enforced separations, its rigid hierarchy, and its dreadful uncertainties. Her father had been shot down in the Philippines during World War II but then had managed to escape. Billy and Anne met on a blind date. They married on Dec. 28, 1951, a few months after Billy’s graduation.
In flight school Billy began in a prop trainer and worked through a series of tougher and tougher machines. Anne pinned his aviator’s wings on his lapel in Pensacola in 1952. Bill Jr. was born in February 1953, Laurie in April 1955.
After a brief time as part of a fighter squadron in the Pacific, Lawrence was transferred to Patuxent River Naval Air Station, the Navy’s new test pilot school on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In the mid-’50s, this was the place to be. Billy and Anne moved into a tract home down the street from John and Annie Glenn. Other flyers included Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, and Pete Conrad. But even here, Lt. Bill Lawrence stood out. In James Michener’s Space, Lawrence is described as “perhaps the ablest flier, all things considered, that Pax River was to produce.” Bill would, in fact, become the first Navy pilot to fly at twice the speed of sound, and he would serve as an instructor on the Test Pilot School staff.
In 1959, the year the Lawrences’ third child, Wendy, was born, NASA began selecting pilots for its space program. Bill Lawrence was one of 32 candidates considered for a spot as a Mercury astronaut. A physical exam, however, discovered a slight, and previously undiagnosed, leakage in his aortic valve. It had never given Lawrence any trouble before, but he was dropped from consideration. “It was,” he said simply, “a major disappointment.”
Still, he stayed on a fast career track. He became flag lieutenant to Rear Adm. Thomas H. Moorer aboard the USS Saratoga. The period involved lengthy sea duty, and Anne Lawrence was often left to keep the household together on her own. “My mother was a Southern belle,” recalls Laurie Lawrence, now a physician at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “ ‘Everything’s fine. We’re going to be strong. We’re going to get through this, and that’s the end of the discussion.’ There was really no crying over things.”
Laurie recalls her father as “a disciplinarian” and “a big player” too. “At Christmas, he always wanted to play with our toys. He was like a big kid,” she says. Laurie also has glamorous memories of her parents dressing for social events on the navy base. “As a little girl,” she says, “I thought my mother and father were beautiful.”
Undeniably, Lawrence was making a name for himself. He was one of two dozen or so airmen selected to participate in a flyover during John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession. Still, Bill Lawrence wasn’t home very often.
By the mid-’60s, the Vietnam conflict began to heat up, and Lawrence insisted that he was “happy for the opportunity to go.” Serving as a squadron commander on the U.S. Constellation, he was based in San Diego, where the family bought a large house above the ocean. Anne told her children to be discreet about the fact that their father was in Vietnam. Because of the controversy over the war, she was increasingly nervous. Once, while the family was out, a motorcyclist missed a turn and crashed into their porch, breaking windows and doing a fair amount of damage. When the family came home, Laurie says, “my mother thought at first it was an attack against us because my dad was in Vietnam.”
In 1967, Lawrence boarded the Constellation, setting out for the Gulf of Tonkin. On June 27, Bill received a letter from Anne. He answered it during the course of a 20-hour day, then caught four hours’ sleep. Early the next morning, he and 35 other pilots were airborne. They headed across the Gulf for a bombing raid of Haiphong. Lawrence was flying an F-4 Phantom, a 50-foot, 40,000-pound fighter that would do 1,500 miles an hour. The craft’s second seat was occupied by Lt. William Bailey, his radar interceptor.
Weather problems precluded approach to Haiphong, so the squadron headed toward Nam Dinh, a farming village, where they hoped to destroy an important river-to-rail shipping transfer facility.
Lawrence, at the head of the group, was to knock out anti-aircraft weapons. He came in at 10,000 feet, doing 500 knots in the face of heavy ground fire. At 8,000 feet, his fighter was hit.
“The plane got hard to control,” Lawrence later wrote in the Nashville Banner, “but rather than turn back to the sea, I decided to go ahead and discharge my armory to knock out the Vietnamese on the ground before they could shoot down any of our jets.
“The ironic thing about my entire six years2,000 long daysas a prisoner, is that I probably could have reached the safety of the ocean.... But I was the flight leader of a 35-jet attack, and it was my responsibility to suppress the ground firing.... I chose to continue with my assigned duties, and I’d do it again today, knowing the consequences.”
The plane went into a spin, and Lawrence told Bailey to eject. Lawrence held on as long as he could (“The ground was coming up pretty fast by then”), then ejected at 2,000 feetthe first time he had ever had to bail out.
As his chute opened, Lawrence got on his emergency radio and “started hollering to make sure that everybody knew that we were both out of our jet and were OK.”
Lawrence could see he was floating into a densely populated rice-growing region. “The first thing I knew,” he said, “was that I was thigh-deep in a rice paddy and a large group of some 20 peasants, all armed with sticks, was gathering around me.” They stripped him to his skivvies and began scavenging for his possessions. Then they placed him in a pen with two large pigs.
North Vietnamese militiamen forced Lawrence to run for two hours to an outpost where he was handcuffed, blindfolded, and placed in the back of an open truck for the ride to Hoa Lo. The camp commandant informed Lawrence that he had committed crimes that were punishable under Vietnamese law and that he had no rights under the Geneva Convention. When he was asked questions, Lawrence responded with his name, rank, and serial number. His captors began to torture him.
Lawrence’s ankles were placed in irons, and his arms were tied behind his back. A torturer the prisoners nicknamed “Strap and Bar” “would jump on my back and push my head down beneath the irons around my ankles,” Lawrence said. “Finally, he got me in the position he wanted and he left me. Periodically, Strap and Bar would return to my room and resume the torture. This went on all night.”
Lawrence was tortured for five dayshe was refused water and burned with cigarettes. Then he was placed in solitary confinement for six months.
After Lawrence’s release from solitaryprobably, he guessed, because of an influx of prisonershe was placed in a four-man cell. The place was crowded, filthy, and unlit. There was a bucket for a toilet, and rats were everywhere.
During an imprisonment that would finally stretch to six years, daily life was strictly regimented. Camp life began at 5:30 a.m. There was bread and a watery soup with a side dish of “something that tasted like squash or pumpkin” twice a day. Bedtime was 9:30 p.m. Lawrence’s weight dropped from 180 to 135 pounds. Prisoners were allowed to bathe two to three times a week. Their water source was an old horse trough.
Torture sessions often included beatings with a strap that resembled an auto fan belt. It “made hamburger out of your legs,” Lawrence recalled. During one period in 1969, he was beaten, tortured, and chained for six weeks while his captors tried to break down the POWs’ communication system.
Meanwhile, Lawrence and his fellow prisoners were revolted by the antiwar activists who showed up on their doorstep. Sometimes the prisoners had to be tortured before they would meet with the protesters. Lawrence was dumfounded by the antiwar activists.
“It was absolutely and purely disgusting,” he said. “It was inconceivable that, here our country was at war with another country in which 45,000 to 50,000 Americans had given their lives, that there were prisoners of war living over there in very harsh conditions, and that here I was in a dark...cell and was being subjected to the indignity of having to hear Jane Fonda degrade our country.”
To keep their minds occupied, prisoners taught each other everything from languages to auto repair. History was one of Lawrence’s specialties. They even had a Saturday-night “movie,” with the best raconteurs recounting the plots of favorite films.
Mostly, though, existence was a grim daily grind of filth, deprivation, and uncertainty. After 1969 and the death of Ho Chi Minh and the release of three POWs who told about their treatment in Vietnamese prison, the level of torture was reduced.
Anne and the children had no word from Bill for three years. They had learned quickly that he had been shot down, but, even then, Laurie recalls, her mother was “matter-of-fact. We weren’t allowed to cry. She said, ‘That’s how it is. There’s nothing to cry about, so just carry on.’ ”
Still, Lawrence’s family trusted that he had been captured rather than killed. Anne told her father-in-law about a radio report concerning two fliers who had been captured, and the family assumed one was Cmdr. Lawrence.
In April 1970, the North Vietnamese announced that Cmdr. Lawrence was indeed a prisoner. Anne Lawrence told The Tennessean she had not heard from her husband and declined comment on the report. Later that year, a letter arrived at the Lawrences’ home in San Diego. Even now, Laurie is fairly certain it was from her father. Her grandparents, in fact, received a letter from Bill in September of that year. Anne, however, told the children that the letter was a fake. “I think she lost her way,” Laurie says. “Emotionally, she just didn’t have any survival skills.”
Bill Lawrence’s parents received more letters, and they learned that he was receiving mail from them. Nevertheless, they were not in touch with their grandchildren, and Laurie had accepted the fact that her father was dead.
In 1972, after three years of troop withdrawals and peace talks, the U.S. began an intensive bombing effort and mined Haiphong and six other harbors. On Dec. 18, President Nixon ordered the heaviest bombing of the war. “What a joyous holiday season,” Lawrence wrote in the Banner. “As the large bombs fell from the American planes, the Vietnamese heard the POWs cheering.”
The bombing was halted Dec. 30, and talks led, on Jan. 23, 1973, to the initialing of a peace agreement. Lawrence and his fellow prisoners would be freed.
The world had changed in six years. Arriving prisoners had told Bill about the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, about U.S. moon landings, Woodstock, Kent State, the 1972 Olympic massacre, the women’s movement, and the Watergate scandal. Nobody, however, had prepared him for the changes in his family. He arrived in the Philippines March 3, only to learn that Anne had divorced him and married a widowed local minister just 90 days earlier.
In January Laurie Lawrence learned that her father was coming home.
“I thought he’d come up from the dead,” she says. “I was pretty shocked and excited. For a while, we thought my mother would go back to my dad, but they had one meeting and that didn’t happen.”
Bill Lawrence arrived home a captainhe had been promoted in 1971. He stepped off a plane at Millington Naval Air Station in Memphis, gave a brief speech, and then joined his parents, his brothers, and his children. In typical Lawrence fashion, the only person who cried was Bill Jr.’s wife.
Instead, Bill’s children checked him out, watching for signs of emotional damage or shellshock. “When he asked about school,” Laurie recalls, “I knew he hadn’t changed.”
A few days later, when Lawrence addressed the state Legislature, he recited the poem he had written during his solitary confinement, the poem that had prevented him from going insane. It was reprinted in the Banner, and, immediately, state Rep. John Hicks suggested that it be included in future editions of the state Blue Book.
Bill Lawrence had come back to a changed nation, a country where officials were greeted with skepticism and mistrust. At the same time, he was Fatty Lawrence’s son, the former football star at West High.
“The human ordeal he had undergone meant that there was a large pool of affection and support for him,” says John Seigenthaler, then-publisher of The Tennessean, “but there was ambivalence over the war in some pockets of the community. Here is a hero who comes home and he’s well-received, but that response is not anything like it would have been if he’d come home from World War I or World War II.”
Still, Bill Lawrence became the subject of dozens of newspaper and magazine articles. He spoke at parades and before civic and school groups, and he appeared on a local telethon. He was presented with an automobile and honored with a lifetime membership in the American Legion. He opened a baseball field and attended a reception in Washington, D.C., in the company of President Nixon, John Wayne, and Roy Acuff. He received nearly 500 letters from people who had worn POW bracelets bearing his name, and he spoke eloquently of the religious faith and patriotic fervor that had kept him and his fellow POWs going.
He would receive three Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals, two Purple Hearts, four Distinguished Service Medals, the Legion of Merit, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later he would receive the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame’s gold medal and an honorary doctorate from Fisk University. He received the NCAA’s Theodore Roosevelt Award and Tennessee’s Outstanding Achievement Award.
Lawrence tried to find time to relax and to renew friendships. He and his children took a trip to Disneyworld, and he eventually began dating again. He also sorted his priorities.
“Making a lot of money, I determined a long time ago, is not an important thing to me,” he said. “My short-term goal is to restore my career in the Navy as best as possible.” He attended the National War College and earned a master’s degree in International Affairs at George Washington University.
In 1974, Lawrence was named commander of the Navy’s Light Attack Wing in the Pacific. In August he remarried. He and his new wife had been introduced by fellow POW John McCain.
Four years later, after a stint at the Pentagon, Lawrence was appointed superintendent of the Naval Academy, where, a year earlier, his daughter Wendy had been part of the Academy’s second-ever class of women plebes. She would go on to become the first female Naval aviator to become an astronaut.
His stint at the Academy, though, was not exactly easy duty. There were scandals involving both drugs and sex. In 1980, Lawrence became a rear admiral, and the following year, as he left the Academy, he was named Commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, with responsibility for defense of the Pacific Ocean. In 1983, he became Deputy Chief of Naval Operations and Chief of Naval Personnel. As President Ronald Reagan restrengthened the military, Bill Lawrence oversaw a $12 billion resource base and 600,000 naval personnel. It took no stretch of the imagination to see him becoming head of the Navy.
In 1986, though, Bill Lawrence’s strength and vigor began to fall apart. He was stricken with a bout of depression so severe that it required hospitalization. To this day, Lawrence himself remains uncertain about the cause of his illness.
“Depression is a sickness just like anything else,” he said recently, “and I just got sick. I don’t think we’ll ever really know. I think it was just probably based on many, many years of going at full speed, coming back from fighting a war, being a POW, and staying on the fast track.”
He retired from that fast track in 1986, telling the Banner, “I think I’ve done every assignment I was given the very best way I could.”
Following his retirement, Lawrence was tapped by Seigenthaler, now chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, to coauthor a report on the military and the media. During its preparation, Seigenthaler recalls, Lawrence faced hostile groups of reporters and scholars. “When I was listening to those exchanges,” Seigenthaler says, “I thought, ‘Here is somebody who knows better than anybody in this roommaybe better than anybody in this countrywhat it means to lose your freedom.’ And here he was talking to journalists who absolutely took freedom of the press for granted.”
During his year here, Lawrence reestablished some of his childhood friendships. One was with Charlie Hawkins, owner of a Nashville-based industrial brokerage company.
“One afternoon we were playing tennis and we had just finished,” Hawkins says. “[Bill] said, ‘Where is the nearest television? I’d like to go see that space shuttle come down.’ And then it dawned on us his daughter Wendy was on the shuttle. I mean, it was just kind of incidental. He’s very proud of his children, but there was never this, ‘My daughter’s landing,’ like it might be with most guys. Here he was playing tennis, finishing up at 4, and at 4:15 the space shuttle was coming down. We went over to Dr. Bill Waddington’s house and watched the shuttle land. It was sort of like, ‘I might go to the drugstore or something.’ ”
Some information regarding the composition of “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee” used with permission of Foundation magazine, published by the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation.
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