This is the eighth in a series of namesake blogposts by Rear Adm. Brian Fort for all surface ships homeported in Pearl Harbor.
By Rear Adm. Brian Fort
Commander, Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific
On June 28, 1967, flying his F-4B Phantom, naval aviator Cmdr. William P. Lawrence, commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 143, catapulted from the deck of USS Constellation (CV 64) on a mission that took him over Nam Dinh, North Vietnam.
He avoided enemy missiles, but was hit by concentrated anti-aircraft fire. Lawrence and his backseater, Lt. j.g. James W. Bailey, ejected. Lawrence remembered landing waist-deep in a rice paddy. Both aviators were immediately captured and taken to Hanoi as prisoners of war.
As a senior officer in the POW camp, he and the other prisoners perfected innovative techniques to communicate. Lawrence learned the tap code and committed it to memory. Key to survival, he said, was not only staying fit physically but also exercising his mind, even and especially in solitary confinement.
He and fellow POWs often faced punishment when caught communicating. In the hours and days alone, Lawrence relied on his memories and mental exercises in order to survive. He created poetry, reflected on history, remembered literature and did complex math in his mind.
In an oral history from nearly 40 years ago, he said something which should resonate with all of us in the age of the internet and constant distractions: “Our whole society is oriented toward picking up information readily through various media – TV, radio, newspaper – that the average person never gets deep into thought and concentration.”
For Lawrence and other POWs, mental toughness led to survival and the will to live despite torture, deprivation, darkness and numbing hardships. Mental toughness is an important component of both physical and moral courage.
“Bravery is not the absence of fear; it’s the ability to keep going in the presence of fear,” Lawrence said. “Never Give In.”
Lawrence was released in the spring of 1973 – 45 years ago. He returned to a broken family and a divided nation. He faced depression, but again his mental toughness helped him prevail.
Speaking of his captors, Lawrence said, “I sensed, as the years went on, a kind of respect that developed on their part for us. I had no feelings of ill will toward them. I was a military man who was doing his assigned job, and I looked on them as military men doing their assigned jobs.”
After Vietnam, he served as assistant deputy chief of Naval Operations (Air Warfare); superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy; commander, U.S. Third Fleet; and chief of Naval Personnel before retiring in 1986.
Admiral Lawrence, who graduated from the Naval Academy in June 1951, was superintendent from 1978 to 1981 at a time when women were first accepted to the academy. His daughter, Wendy was one of the early women graduates. She became a Navy captain and an astronaut.
Wendy Lawrence, now retired, is a sponsor of guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG 110), as is her sister, Dr. Laurie Lawrence, and Lawrence’s widow, Diane Wilcox Lawrence.
DDG -110 was commissioned on the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, June 4, 2011, five and half years after the ship’s namesake passed away.
Sen. John S. McCain, another naval aviator POW imprisoned with Lawrence at the “Hanoi Hilton” for nearly six years, spoke at a memorial service for his shipmate. McCain said, “He’s probably the greatest man I’ve known in my life.” Lawrence was and is remembered for his inspirational leadership and quiet humility.
Here, from Hawaii and in the Pacific, USS William P. Lawrence Sailors conduct a variety of operations, from peacetime presence and crisis management to sea control and power projection.
DDG-110 is capable of fighting air, surface and subsurface battles simultaneously with myriad offensive and defensive weapons designed to support maritime warfare.
Prior to arriving in Pearl Harbor in 2016, DDG-110 deployed as part of the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative with the U.S. Coast Guard and then participated in Exercise Foal Eagle with the Republic of Korea Navy.
Today, when women and men who serve aboard USS William P. Lawrence deploy from Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, they are part of the U.S. 3rd Fleet that Vice Adm. Lawrence once commanded. They are expected to operate in the 7th Fleet area of operations, where they may at some point be one of the U.S. Navy ships visiting Vietnam.
Today, in the words of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, “We welcome enhancing our partnership with Vietnam in a way that supports mutual interests in peace, stability and adherence to a rules-based international order. This includes deepening capabilities of our two militaries to cooperate on issues like maritime security, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson visited USS William P. Lawrence at the end of 2017 and administered the oath of enlistment to several William P. Lawrence Sailors. The CNO was here to reaffirm the Navy’s commitment to its Sailors, our allies and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.
This month, our Sailors aboard USS William P. Lawrence are looking forward to participating in the 26th Rim of the Pacific Exercise. The first RIMPAC was held in 1971, while William P. Lawrence’s namesake was still a POW in Hanoi. This year, RIMPAC begins June 27, nearly 51 years to the day of Lawrence’s capture.
Training in RIMPAC reinforces capable, adaptive and innovative partnerships. Third Fleet is welcoming 47 surface ships, five submarines, 18 national land forces and more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel to Hawaii for RIMPAC.
One of the countries participating for the first time – Vietnam.
Author’s note: This blog can only begin to scratch the surface of William P. Lawrence’s legacy and history. I encourage you to go to the Naval History and Heritage Command and other sources to learn more. Lawrence was one of an elite group of naval aviators to apply to become astronauts and was prevented from joining John Glenn, Alan Shepard and Neil Armstrong only because of a heart murmur.
As a POW, he was considered a hero among heroes for leading resistance, demonstrating strength of character, and maintaining the Code of Conduct. Speaking at USS William P. Lawrence’s commissioning, Adm. Sandy Winnefeld said to the ship’s plankowners, “Lawrences, we wish upon you – and your families – the courage, skill, integrity, toughness and magnificent humanity of the man in whose honor your ship is named … The wind you feel at your back is the push of a long tradition of the name Lawrence in serving our country – demanding the best of each of you.”