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William Lawrence, 75; Held as POW for 6 Years During Vietnam War

December 13, 2005|Bradley Olson | Baltimore Sun

Vice Adm. William Porter Lawrence, a Vietnam prisoner of war, former U.S. Naval Academy superintendent and father of an astronaut, died of natural causes Dec. 2 at his home in Crownsville, Md. He was 75.

Lawrence had an illustrious 34-year career in the Navy, beginning as a test pilot after he graduated from the Naval Academy in 1951 and ending as the deputy chief of naval operations.

But he was most famous for his perseverance during six years as an American POW during the Vietnam War, when he endured torture at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

"He's probably the greatest man I've ever known in my life," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spent almost six years with Lawrence in the infamous prison nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton." "It was his constant, steadfast, inspirational, yet very rational leadership that guided many of us through some very difficult times."

Lawrence was born in Nashville on Jan. 13, 1930, and stood out as a football, basketball and baseball player in high school. He turned down a scholarship to Yale University to attend the Naval Academy, where he played all three sports, was elected class president and rose to the rank of brigade commander -- the highest-ranking midshipman.

With Ross Perot, the Dallas billionaire and two-time presidential candidate, he helped develop the academy's Honor Concept, which allowed midshipmen to police themselves for misconduct such as cheating.

"We went from platoon to platoon, and when Adm. Lawrence finished, the honor code belonged to the midshipmen, and it set the highest possible standard for integrity," Perot said.

Lawrence became a Navy test pilot after graduating. He also came close to being in the nation's first group of astronauts, along with friends Alan Shepard and John Glenn. He was dropped from consideration when doctors found a heart murmur.

On June 28, 1967, he was shot down over North Vietnam and taken to Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by POWs, where he was routinely tortured.

To pass the time, he recalled very specific details from his life and wrote poetry, including what later became Tennessee's official state poem.

When he came home in 1973, he found that his wife had married an Episcopal clergyman. The next year, he married Diane Wilcox Rauch, a physical therapist, and moved to California.

From 1978 to 1981, he served as the superintendent of the Naval Academy, two years after women were first admitted, and was on hand for his daughter Wendy's graduation in 1981. She eventually became an astronaut.

He later commanded the U.S. 3rd Fleet in Hawaii and was deputy chief of naval operations when he retired in 1986. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal four times, the Silver Star three times, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Bronze Star Medal with V device for valor and two Purple Hearts.

In addition to his wife, Lawrence is survived by children Capt. Wendy Lawrence of Houston, William Lawrence Jr. of Yorba Linda and Dr. Laurie Lawrence of Nashville; a stepson, Frederick Rauch of North Stonington, Conn.; and five grandchildren.

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