This Day in History: Vice Admiral William P. Lawrence

On this day in 2005, retired Navy Vice Admiral William “Bill” Lawrence passes away. Decades earlier, Lawrence had been a prisoner of war at the Hanoi Hilton.

He was one of the highest-ranking members of our military to be held in that infamous prison.

Trouble began in June 1967. Lawrence was then serving as commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 143, but a June 28 mission to drop bombs on Nam Dinh went horribly awry. Lawrence’s F-4B Phantom was hit. He managed to get off his bombs before his plane went into a spin and he was forced to bail out.

Lawrence made it safely to the ground, but he was captured by North Vietnamese farmers almost instantly. Lawrence would prove to be one of the more senior officers being held by the Vietnamese. He knew he must fulfill his duty to maintain discipline and morale among his men.

“He repeatedly paid the price of being perceived by the enemy as a source of their troubles through his ‘high crime’ of leadership,” his fellow POW James B. Stockdale later said, “[but he] could not be intimidated and never gave up the ship.”

The prisoners developed a code to communicate with each other by tapping on the walls. They taught each other French, Portuguese, or history. They did complicated math problems in their head. They had to keep their brains going, moving, active.

On one occasion, Lawrence was thrown into a small cell known as the “Black Hole of Calcutta.” Its concrete walls, lack of ventilation, and tin roof made it dark and excessively hot. Sixty days in that hole nearly killed Lawrence, but he spent his time writing a poem about his home state.

Today, “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee” is the official state poem.

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