He had memorized his three-minute speech on the plane, but his voice began to quiver when he spotted his mom. As Lawrence finished speaking -- "with a deep sense of humility and gratitude" -- Tennie rushed past a barricade to embrace him. Fatty, a stout and stoic man, cried. Then the three Lawrence children -- Bill Jr., 20; Laurie, 17; and 13-year-old Wendy -- took turns hugging their emaciated dad.
Missing from the tearful scene on the sunny tarmac was Lawrence's wife of 20 years. "Life just keeps going on," is all Anne Lawrence will say.
Her children say that, as the years wore on, and false reports of their father's release took them all on a ghastly roller-coaster ride, their mother lost hope.
Anne Lawrence had sought comfort from the priest at the family's Episcopal church. Then, she fell in love with him. The state of California granted her a divorce and she remarried. Five years had passed since her husband's disappearance.
Lawrence felt she had acted "dishonorably" and considered a campaign to expose the priest, who he felt had seduced a vulnerable POW wife. He flew to California, met Anne for the first time in six years and made a proposal: For the kids' sake, get your marriage annulled, we'll remarry and start over. She declined.
"Look," Lawrence recalls her saying, as she broke into tears, "I tried really hard. I really tried to be strong. I'm sorry I couldn't, I couldn't."
Lawrence returned to Washington and moved in with another ex-POW, whose wife had also left him. Lawrence's wife, in her effort to move on with her life, had disposed of his possessions. All he owned now was a bed, a few pieces of clothing and the watch from the Philippines.
Wendy, back in California, began thinking about a classmate whose parents had split up. They asked the child to choose which parent to live with. Such a prospect seemed awful to Wendy. But weeks after her father's return, she made a similar decision.
"I told my mother I wanted to have an opportunity to get to know my father. To make up for lost time."
Family and friends say it was a logical choice. Wendy had modeled herself after her absent father, becoming a studious, athletic, industrious tomboy. And after watching Neil Armstrong's 1969 lunar landing, she knew what she wanted in life. She wanted to soar into space.
Wendy first spent a year with her grandparents in Nashville while her dad stayed in Washington, planning for a new job and a place where he and Wendy could live.
Meanwhile, a fellow ex-POW named John McCain introduced Lawrence to the physical therapist -- Diane Wilcox Raugh -- who was helping McCain regain use of his injured legs. They married in August 1974, and moved to California. Wendy went with them.
With Diane frequently flying back to Washington to run her physical therapy business, Wendy and Lawrence began taking their first, tentative steps toward becoming a family again. "It was all kind of awkward at first," Wendy says. "I didn't know what to say to the man."
Lawrence tried to do father-daughter things, teaching Wendy to drive, taking her to church and on vacations. But both were adapting to new lives in a new place, and some distance between them remained.
Says Diane: "It was a serious time. Wendy didn't know her dad, and he didn't know Wendy after six years away. I didn't know her. She didn't know me."
As Lawrence plunged back into his career -- becoming a vice admiral in a year, getting assigned to a top Pentagon post -- Diane became a link between father and daughter.
One day in 1976, Wendy announced she wanted a Navy career, too. Lawrence at first resisted her decision to attend his alma mater, which had begun admitting women only a year earlier. But Diane became Wendy's advocate, convincing Lawrence it was the perfect place for her.
A year later, toward the end of Wendy's freshman year at the academy, Lawrence got a call: How would you like to be the next superintendent of the Naval Academy?
Lawrence waited until summer to break the news to Wendy that he had accepted the assignment. Her first words were: "Oh, my."
"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," she says.
On campus, they saluted each other like strangers.
On his first Sunday in the job, Wendy was serving as usher at the chapel. Lawrence and Diane arrived there 20 minutes before the 11 a.m. service. Wendy, with a white-gloved hand in the "halt" position, stopped them at the door, telling her father to come back at 10:58 so he could lead the procession, like the previous superintendent did.
Lawrence complied before realizing he'd taken orders from a sophomore. Later he told her, "Listen, young lady. This is one superintendent who's going to get to that chapel when he darn well pleases."
Lawrence is known for easing in the era of a coed academy, and he became a fierce defender of women in the military. But few knew his daughter was a source of his strong feelings.