William Lawrence

Admiral Lawrence in the 1970s
PHOTO: U.S. Navy


Some people bring the word “hero” to mind. William Lawrence is one of those people.

Lawrence grew up in the heart of Nashville, in a home right next to Vanderbilt University. He excelled in just about everything he tried as a young man (including high school sports, which is why he is a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame). He then went to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he finished near the top of his class. After graduating, Lawrence became an aviator, then a test pilot, and eventually the first human to fly an airplane at twice the speed of sound.

All in all, “Billy” Lawrence seemed to be living a charmed life until June 1967, when his airplane was shot down over North Vietnam. Lawrence spent the next six years of his life in a North Vietnamese prison camp, enduring frequent torture from his captors and (at one point) 14 months in a row of solitary confinement.

Nevertheless, he never gave up hope that he would one day come back to his home state. And it was in that prison camp that Lawrence wrote a poem called “Oh, Tennessee, My Tennessee.” (He composed it in his head, since prisoners were not allowed to have pencils or paper.) Today that is the official state poem.

The USS William P. Lawrence

When the Vietnam War ended, Lawrence was released and given a hero’s welcome. He stayed in the Navy and received promotions along the way. Vice Admiral William Lawrence eventually became superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

William Lawrence died in December 2005. Today there is a Navy ship named for him.