Several weeks ago I was going through a box of family papers and found two newspaper clippings about a Navy Commander William P. Lawrence who had just been confirmed as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. A penciled note on one of the clippings stated, “This will tell you news of Billy”.
It didn’t take long to discover who Billy was. He was a star athlete, Naval Academy graduate, noted Navy test pilot, one of the final candidates for the original Mercury space program and, for six years, a POW in Hanoi. That’s just the beginning. He went on to serve as Superintendent of the Naval Academy, commander of the Third Fleet and Chief of Naval Personnel before he retired as a Vice Admiral in 1986.
During his internment, he emerged as one of the most effective POW leaders. At Camp Vegas, the Vietnamese caught him passing a note to another Navy prisoner, Jeremiah Denton, and placed him in solitary confinement for 60 days to break his will. During the day, the temperature in the six-foot cell, known as Calcutta, rose to over 100 degrees, and heat sores soon covered Lawrence’s body. To get through the ordeal, he composed the poem “Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee,” which later became the state’s official poem.VAdm. James B. Stockdale, the senior ranking Navy POW, later wrote in his evaluation of Lawrence that “he repeatedly paid the price of being perceived by the enemy as a source of their troubles through his ‘high crime’ of leadership,” but “could not be intimidated and never gave up the ship.”
VAdm. Lawrence died on 2 December 2005. “Never flew a man so high, never suffered a man so much and never inspired a man so many in Navy blue as Vice Admiral Bill Lawrence,” stated Admiral Mike Mullen at Lawrence’s funeral. “His legacy will endure for as long as we have a Navy to put to sea.”
~John Darrell Sherwood, In memoriam.
He also wrote America’s Team: Media and the Military with Frank A. Aukofer in 1995, promoting the idea of embedding journalists with military units during operations, and Tennessee Patriot, an autobiography which he completed just weeks before his death in 2005.
I started searching my family database, but there were no Lawrences to be found. Because the family is from Nashville, I then started going through my Link family information and found the family in a GEDCOM file my favorite research cousin had sent me some time ago. We are second cousins, once removed, which means our common ancestors are William Booker Link and Amanda Randolph Link – my great-great grandparents and his great-grandparents.
I’m proud to be related – even remotely – to someone as outstanding as Admiral Lawrence. I’m also very disappointed that I never had a chance to meet him. Instead, I’ve added his autobiography to my summer challenge book list so I can learn more about this family – and their American hero.
This Memorial Day, take a few minutes to honor your family heroes who have helped defend our great country.