ON MARCH 4, 1973, his North Vietnamese captors told him it was over.
For 2,075 days -- scores spent in isolation, roasting inside a windowless, 6-foot box -- he had fought rats off his food and torturers off his back, doing mental and physical push-ups to keep a toe-hold on his sanity. Now he was going home.
Within hours, he was aboard an Air Force C-141 full of stunned POWs. When the plane went "feet wet" -- aviation jargon for reaching open seas -- the POWs cheered, cried and hugged. But for William Porter Lawrence, the euphoria was short-lived.
At a Philippine air base, he felt the stares of people who knew something he didn't. A Navy chaplain pulled him into a small room to tell him what had happened: Your wife has divorced you and remarried.
The next day, the air base store let POWs take anything they wanted off the shelves. Lawrence chose just one thing, a watch. A tool for a new start -- and a step toward putting his lost marriage behind him.
Just like getting shot down and becoming a POW, he thought, I've got to make the best of it.
The journey home ended three days later at a military base in Memphis, Tenn. Waiting for him on the tarmac, in a crowd of 1,500, were his three children.
When 13-year-old Wendy Lawrence had last seen her father, he'd given her a toy helicopter, then flown off to Vietnam and disappeared. For six years, she feared he was dead. And as her mother made a new life for herself and her children, Wendy watched vestiges of her father vanish. His clothes. His photographs. Everything except the toy helicopter.
Now here he was -- the father she and her siblings had never really known. The father she would emulate.
Today, the walls of William Lawrence's home in Crownsville hint at what has happened since that homecoming 26 years ago. Photos show Lawrence with presidents and senators, astronauts and millionaires. There is a portrait of him as superintendent of the Naval Academy. Awards and medals clutter tabletops.
Mingled with these mementos are photographs of Wendy: hugging her dad on the day she graduated from the Naval Academy; standing beside her Navy helicopter; posing in her astronaut suit.
From strangers on a tarmac, Bill and Wendy Lawrence have become more than father and daughter.
Wendy's career path shadowed his own, and in that Lawrence takes great pride. Wendy has also become a source of sustenance for her father, who after six years as a POW would endure more hellish prisons.
But instead of a storybook ending, there is a twist. At 69, the admiral is fighting another battle -- perhaps his most harrowing.
Quietly and with ease, William Lawrence became tops at everything he did. Time and again, he was elected class president and team captain. He attributes his success to lessons in mental and physical toughness learned in Nashville, Tenn.
There, his mother, Tennie, and her family of teachers told him to study hard and read often. His father, Fatty, a popular Vanderbilt University football player who became the city's sewer and water director, trained Lawrence and his three brothers to become baseball, football and basketball standouts at West End High.
In 1947, Lawrence turned down a Yale scholarship for an appointment to the Naval Academy. By his senior year, he was a three-sport varsity athlete, class president and the top-ranked midshipman, the brigade commander.
Concerned about midshipmen cheating on tests, he teamed up with a classmate, Ross Perot, and wrote the "honor concept:" Mids do not lie, cheat or steal. That became the school's moral code, and has always been his own.
He graduated in 1951, eighth in his class of 725, and went off to flight school to earn his wings. He was chosen for the Navy's elite test-pilot school.
At Christmas that year, Lawrence married Anne Williams, daughter of a World War II flying ace. Though she was raised by a pilot and chose one for a spouse, Anne had hated flying ever since her dad was shot down over the Philippines. At age 10, she had waited months to learn if he was dead or alive.
His wife's fears didn't keep Lawrence from doing the Navy's riskiest flying. As a test pilot, his job was to push new jets to extremes. He flew 1,300 miles an hour, becoming the first Navy pilot to fly at Mach 2, twice the speed of sound.
When the fledgling Project Mercury space program came looking for men to become the first Americans in orbit, Lawrence eagerly tried out.
For six months, scientists searching for seven perfect astronauts poked and prodded him, ran electricity through his muscles, measured his sperm count. When the list was pared from 100 to 32, Lawrence's name was on it, alongside friends John Glenn and Alan Shepard.
But inside a heat chamber, with wires stuck to his body and the temperature at 120, Lawrence's heart made a strange murmur. Doctors said it was the flapping of a mildly defective valve. Nothing life-threatening -- but an imperfection. And the end of his dream.