At the behest of U.S. Sen. John McCain, 22 fellow former prisoners of war walked onto the stage at the cavernous Naval Academy chapel yesterday to honor a fallen comrade: Vice Adm. William Porter Lawrence.
They fell into a formation of sorts behind McCain, some limping and struggling to stand while they made two lines and faced the 1,000 people who had also come to pay their respects to Lawrence, who died in his sleep Dec. 2 at his Crownsville home at age 75.
As one of the highest-ranking officers in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton" during the Vietnam War, Lawrence had acted as commander and adviser to many of the men, helping them to resist the constant torture and cruelty they faced for years in the prison.
"We had the unique privilege of serving in the company of heroes," said McCain, his voice quivering slightly throughout his short, unscripted remarks. "We observed 1,000 acts of courage and compassion and love. And perhaps the one who epitomized that the most and was the very best of us was Billy Lawrence. ... And when times were tough and we came back beaten down, we could always count on Billy to lead us and to restore our faith, our competence and our ability to go one more round with our captors.
"And those of us who have come back remember him so well. We will remember him in the morning and in the evening."
The two-hour service was attended by a host of high-ranking Navy and Marine Corps officials, former presidential candidate and Dallas billionaire H. Ross Perot and even Lawrence's fourth-grade teacher, who read a verse Lawrence penned in prison that later became the state poem of Tennessee.
After the service, Lawrence's remains were buried at the Naval Academy cemetery.
Perot, who with Lawrence developed the Naval Academy's honor concept when the two were midshipmen together in the early 1950s, gave an extended biography of the admiral that included his time as a combat pilot, test pilot, prisoner of war, Naval Academy superintendent and deputy chief of naval operations.
Letter from Bush
Perot also read a letter from President Bush and praised Diane Lawrence, Lawrence's wife of 21 years, who met the admiral through McCain. Many of those who spoke had high praise for her and how she cared for him during the last years of his life. Lawrence had a stroke about 10 years ago, although doctors who spoke at the service said he had an amazing recovery given the stroke's severity.
Lawrence's son, William Jr., said that despite his father's professional success, he never neglected his family. He and other family members, including Lawrence's daughter Capt. Wendy Lawrence, an astronaut, read selected scriptures from the Old and New Testaments.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations, said he remembered being a young lieutenant at the Naval Academy and hearing Lawrence speak when he was the academy's superintendent, a position he held from 1978 to 1981.
`Stirred our ... souls'
"He seemed this giant of a man who had survived a tortuous hell," Mullen said. "And in those few inspiring minutes he stirred our very souls to wonder if we could have survived as he. He reassured all of us that we could."
Retired Capt. Ned Shuman, who was held with Lawrence in the Vietnam prison, said he had some "pretty tough times" when he first arrived at the prison in 1968, nine months after Lawrence, especially because the prisoners couldn't communicate with each other except through a system of coded tapping and sweeping.
Once Shuman learned to communicate, he discovered that Lawrence was nearby, and his spirits "went way up." Lawrence served in a leadership position in the camp, mostly maintaining the chain of command and helping other prisoners resist torture and intimidation that might be used as propaganda in the war. He "paid a dear price for it," Shuman said.
`We loved him'
"Bill saw it as his duty, and he did it and he did it well," Shuman said. "They'd take him out, work him over and he'd come back and he'd do the same type of resistance he did before and the same type of leadership. That boy from Nashville was tough. They couldn't break him. The Vietnamese hated that guy, but we loved him."