Lawrence returned to test piloting, grueling days highlighted by audacious feats. He'd roar toward the moon, coast, then dive toward earth at Mach 2, listening -- just like the doctors with their stethoscopes -- for rattles, shimmies, any signs of imperfection.
Some colleagues didn't survive in the job, and the Lawrences regularly attended funerals. Anne, dreading the knock on the door from a Navy chaplain, began objecting to her husband's work.
She also felt he was spending more time in the clouds than with their three children, Bill Jr., Laurie and Wendy. In his absence, she tried to offer stability. She filled their lives with scouting, sports and church. "I got up in the morning, looked at the schedule and said, 'OK, here we go.' "
She'd been raised the same way, with her dad a stranger. Now she considered writing a cookbook: 365 meals that can wait in a warm oven.
But it finally became too much, and she asked the unspoken question: Who's more important, your family or the Navy?
Lawrence considered retiring, but says he "couldn't step across the threshold." Instead, he swapped the sky for the sea. He served as a navigator aboard the USS Newport News. Top speed: 38 miles an hour.
That lasted a year. He was bored. He wanted to etch blue skies, leave sonic booms behind him. "It was just too slow a pace for me."
The Navy, despite concerns about Lawrence's heart murmur, agreed to let him fly again -- over Vietnam. Assigned to an aircraft carrier squadron, the "Puking Dogs," he bombed Hanoi on the midnight-to-noon shift.
On June 28, 1967, Wendy and her mother were at home in San Diego, making cookies to send him. Anne left the house to borrow ingredients from a neighbor. Wendy, just four days shy of her eighth birthday, was alone when the Navy chaplain knocked on the door.
Her father was missing in action.
Lawrence had been leading a 36-plane mission to drop cluster bombs on the town of Nam Dinh.
At 500 knots and 10,000 feet, the sky spat fire and smoke and he felt a jolt. His wingman radioed, "Skipper, I think you're hit." Lawrence kept flying. The hydraulic warning lights came on. Lawrence kept flying. He reached the target and dropped his bombs.
But the controls felt mushy. He wrestled the plane back up to 10,000 feet. The sea was 20 miles away, about two minutes. Despite all the tricks he learned as a test pilot, his F-4 Phantom wobbled into a "flat spin" -- like a 20-ton steel Frisbee. At 3,000 feet, he told his back-seater to eject. At 1,800 feet, he bailed out, landing in a rice paddy.
It was 7:30 a.m. Local farmers, just starting their day, threw him in a pen with a 400-pound hog. Then the Viet Cong took him to the century-old prison Hoa Lo, nicknamed Hanoi Hilton by American POWs. There, he met "Strap and Bar." The torturer bent Lawrence's body like a pipe cleaner, shackling his legs to a bar, forcing his head beneath it, and strapping his arms high behind him.
"They didn't give us the option of dying," he says.
Locked out of sight from the rest of the world, Lawrence and nearly 600 other POWs created new lives for themselves as a hedge against the brutality. Some made playing cards out of toilet paper, and slide rules out of the cardboard core. They taught each other French, Portuguese and Civil War history.
Lawrence coped by reliving every detail of his life. He spent weeks recalling the names of his first-grade classmates. He had no books or pencils, but shut his eyes and envisioned lines of poetry. He designed houses and did math -- how much does $100 grow at 6 percent interest over 30 years?
POWs who served with Lawrence say that as one of the senior ranking prisoners, he risked his life to maintain order and to mete out discipline through a communications network called the "tap code" -- tapping sentences, a letter at a time, on walls and floors.
Sometimes they'd replace taps with sweeps of a broom, or coughs, sniffs or spits. A common salutation was: cough-cough, cough-cough; sniff, sniff-sniff; sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep, sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep-sweep. It spelled GBU -- "God bless you."
When his captors caught Lawrence using the code, they tossed him into a 6-foot-square cell called the Black Hole of Calcutta. With no light or vent and a tin roof, the place was an oven.
Lawrence spent 60 days in the Hole, his body covered with heat sores, fighting foot-long rats for his bread. Inside the box, near death, he wrote a poem about his home state, using iambic pentameter. It took him two weeks, concentrating for 15 to 16 hours a day. The result -- "Oh Tennessee, My Tennessee" -- is now the official state poem.
O'er the world as I may roam,
No place exceeds my boyhood home.
At a Navy air base in Tennessee, 43-year-old Bill Lawrence was the first of three POWs to step off the plane. He saluted an admiral, then turned toward 1,500 cheering, chanting faces.
"During the years, we never lost our hope and our spirits never dimmed," Lawrence told them.