William Lawrence

This Nashville native rose to the navy's top ranks and received national honor after six years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, during which time he wrote “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” the official state poem. Lawrence excelled at academics and sports at Nashville's West High School and entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1947. He was class president and brigade commander his senior year and graduated eighth in a class of 725 with a degree in electrical engineering. He attended flight school and won his aviator's wings in 1952.

After serving in a fighter squadron in the Korean War, Lawrence was sent to Patuxent Naval Air Test Center. He was part of an elite group that included John Glenn, Alan Shepard, Pete Conrad, and Wally Schirra, all of whom became astronauts, an honor Lawrence missed only because of a mild aortic valve leakage.

Lawrence was the first naval aviator to fly Mach 2 in a navy aircraft, and he took part in the flyover at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. As fighting in Vietnam intensified, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Ranger and then to the USS Constellation as an F-4 Phantom squadron commander. By mid-1967 he had flown seventy-five combat missions. Then, on June 28, flying an F-4 Phantom, he was shot down during a bombing raid over Nam Dinh, North Vietnam.

Lawrence was held six years in the Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” He was tortured and spent fourteen months in solitary confinement. As a result of the torture and poor sanitation, he developed health problems. Still, his forbearance and leadership served as inspiration to many other American prisoners. In 1971, during a two-month confinement in a tiny, sweltering shed called “Calcutta” by the prisoners, immobilized by pain and heat, he wrote a poem about Tennessee to maintain his sanity. That poem, “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” was named official state poem in 1973.

Upon his release early in 1973, Lawrence returned to a hero's welcome. He had been promoted to captain during his imprisonment. Over the course of his naval career, he would receive three Silver Stars, four Distinguished Service Medals, the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and two Purple Hearts. vice-Admiral Jim Stockdale, senior U.S. Navy POW, praised Lawrence for his loyalty, bravery, toughness, and compassion. He was an inspiration to all prisoners.

Lawrence threw himself into navy life. He was named rear admiral in 1974 and made commander of the navy's Light Attack Wing in the Pacific. After a stint at the Pentagon, he was named superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1983 he was appointed deputy chief of naval operations and chief of naval personnel, a position that placed him only under the chief of naval operations. He held that post until his retirement in 1986.

Following his retirement, Lawrence occupied the Chair of Naval Leadership at the Naval Academy, wrote on many issues for newspapers including the Nashville Banner and the Nashville Tennessean, and coauthored a major report on the military and the news media for the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Lawrence lives near Annapolis, Maryland, with his wife, the former Diane Wilcox Rauch.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title William Lawrence
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018