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James Michener’s “Ablest Flyer” Has Passed


Vice Admiral William Porter Lawrence, 75, passed away yesterday.

To say he was a great man seems not enough: It’s almost fair to say he was beyond legendary…. so much so that in his book, Space, author James Michener wrote that “Bill Lawrence” was “perhaps the ablest flyer, all things considered, that Pax River was to produce.”

A 1951 “distinguished’” Annapolis grad (where he played football), Lawrence flew 25 combat missions in Korea and 150 combat missions in Vietnam. Between wars, he graduated first in class at test pilot school and became the first aviator to fly twice the speed of sound in a Navy aircraft.

A heart murmur kept him from being one of America’s first astronauts (His daughter Wendy would later become an astronaut).

In 1967, Lawrence was shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW for six years. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his inspirational leadership of his fellow prisoners.

While a POW, Lawrence also wrote what would become the official state poem of Tennessee, a portion of which reads:

Beauty and hospitality

are the hallmarks of Tennessee;

and o’er the world as I may roam

no place exceeds my boyhood home.

And oh how much I long to see

my native land, my Tennessee.”

Admiral Lawrence retired from the Navy in 1986, then held the Chair of Naval Leadership at Annapolis until 1991.

He was planning to attend the Army-Navy game today.


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