In the first week of June 1951, Ensign Bill Lawrence graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. During his time as a midshipman, he was bothered about a then-typical practice known as “passing the dope.” Midshipmen who had taken quizzes early in the day told others what the questions were so they would have advance notice when they took the same quizzes later. Lawrence viewed the practice as less than honorable and sought to eliminate it. His sense of honor had developed during his days as a youngster in middle Tennessee. He avidly read the histories of Civil War generals and sought to emulate the ideals of commanders such as Robert E. Lee.
As president of his class, Lawrence worked with the presidents of the succeeding classes, James Sagerholm and H. Ross Perot, to develop an honor concept for the Academy. His vision was that it would be less rigid than the West Point honor code, which forbade dishonesty and required cadets to report those who did lie, cheat, or steal. For the Naval Academy version, which was blessed by the school’s administration, councils of mids held hearings on alleged honor violations and offered counseling and remediation as possible outcomes. Lawrence’s brainchild is still in effect in Annapolis.
In his years as a commissioned officer, Lawrence became a naval aviator, test pilot (see interview, p. 34), and an individual widely admired for his variety of skills, including a gift for diplomacy and a strong work ethic. In the early 1960s, he was involved in the fleet introduction of the F-4 Phantom II. In June 1967, he became skipper of Fighter Squadron 143. Two weeks later, antiaircraft artillery fire downed his Phantom over North Vietnam.
That was the beginning of an ordeal as a prisoner of war that lasted more than 5½ years. Along with Commander James Stockdale, Lawrence emerged as one of the leaders in Hoa Lo Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” The North Vietnamese were skillful torturers and inflicted unimaginable pain on their captives. For those such as Lawrence, it was a point of honor to endure a great deal of pain before saying anything. He determined to make the North Vietnamese “work” for anything they got out of him, and, above all, he refused to cooperate in propaganda efforts.
After his release in 1973, Lawrence learned that he had been divorced in absentia while he was in captivity. He spent a year at the National War College as a student and in the process met his second wife, Diane Rauch. The matchmaker was fellow POW and then-Commander John McCain. Diane was McCain’s physical therapist, and he rightly concluded that she and Lawrence would hit it off.
In the ensuing years, the Lawrences were at a series of duty stations, including Annapolis, where he was superintendent of the Academy from 1978 to 1981. He served subsequently as 3rd Fleet commander and chief of Naval Personnel. In 1985 he learned that he was to be nominated for four stars as vice chief of Naval Operations and perhaps after that as CNO. Sadly, he soon went into a mental tailspin that led to his medical retirement, perhaps because he had jumped right on the fast track after being released from North Vietnam and didn’t take time to decompress. As Lawrence revealed in his oral history, Diane carefully shepherded him through a four-year period of recovery from clinical depression. He died in 2005 at the age of 75.
In June of this year, 60 years to the week after Lawrence graduated from the Academy, the Navy honored him with the commissioning of the guided-missile destroyer William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) in Mobile, Alabama. At a reception the night before the ceremony, another fellow POW, retired Captain Mike McGrath, made a dramatic presentation. He gave the ship’s prospective skipper, Commander Tom Williams, a piece of tile from the room in the Hanoi prison where Lawrence was tortured. It was an emotional moment. Another came the following day at the commissioning, when Williams announced that the ship’s radio call sign would be NGBU. “N” is for “Navy” and “GBU,” for “God Bless You.” That was the short coded message that Lawrence and other POWs used to transmit in Hanoi to reassure each other of their connection to the group. The ship’s motto is “Never Give In!”
One of the most energetic members of the destroyer’s commissioning committee was retired Captain Joan Platz. In 1981, as Joan Skellenger, she became one of the early female graduates of the Naval Academy. She wanted to be a pilot but was ranked sixth for five slots available in flight school. She appealed to Superintendent Lawrence for help. He asked her if she would promise him two things: “Be the best pilot you can be,” and “Take care of your sailors.” She made the promises, and he went to bat for her. Soon she heard from the Bureau of Naval Personnel: “We don’t know who you are, but a three-star just called on your behalf.”
She earned her wings in 1983, became a flight instructor, flew MH-53E and CH-53E helicopters, and eventually served 2004–7 as commanding officer of Whiting Field Naval Air Station in Florida. The many things she did as part of the ship’s commissioning process this June were her ways of saying thank you for the admiral’s support so many years earlier. Loyalty down begets loyalty up.