by Robert Morrison
March 8, 2013
This date forty years ago deserves to be credited to Richard Nixon as a signal achievement of his presidency. On this date, more than 500 American POWs returned home with honor from North Vietnam.
Richard Nixon had promised the American people in 1968, when he ran for president, that he would end American involvement in the Vietnam War. He pledged to bring our troops home, to repatriate our POWs, and to achieve “Peace with Honor.”
Nixon won that election. The day he took the oath as President, we had 535,000 troops in South Vietnam. We were suffering hundreds of casualties a week. And the Lyndon Johnson administration was still arguing with the North Vietnamese about the shape of a negotiating table in Paris.
Four years later, President Nixon took the oath for a second time. By 1973, American forces had been drawn down to just 25,000 troops in South Vietnam. Our South Vietnamese allies were defending themselves. The U.S. still supported them with air, sea, and financial aid. But U.S. casualties were very few in what was to that point America’s longest war
Nixon had accomplished much. Not that the media was inclined to give him any credit for it. [Or, I confess, young Democrats like me.]
Richard Nixon did not forget our POWs. Our men had been subjected to inhuman torture for years in what they humorously called “The Hanoi Hilton.” Ever afterward, those Vietnam POWs would remember their experience, not with bitterness, but with gratitude for the country that did not forget them.
Ex-POW Jack Fellowes spoke often of his experiences in captivity. I remember him addressing a forum at the U.S. Naval Academy. “I don’t know who’s talking of our torture as breaking us. I saw a good many of us bent a lot.” That was typical of the thumbs up attitude of our heroic men. John McCain famously described the Hanoi Hilton as “not one of those where they put a chocolate on your pillow at night.”
My closest association with the honor and courage of these men came from my friendship with the late Admiral William P. Lawrence. This famous Navy aviator was a top student and an all-American football player at the Academy. With classmate Ross Perot, he developed the Academy’s Honor Concept for Midshipmen.
As a Navy test pilot, he broke records. He became the first man to fly Mach-2 (twice the speed of sound). A slight heart murmur kept him out of the Mercury astronaut program, but not out of danger.
Shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, Bill Lawrence was subjected to brutal treatment as a POW for more than five years.
In this Washington Post story, we learn:
[On parachuting out of his stricken jet, he landed in a rice paddy.] [H]ostile farmers took him and tossed him into a pen with a 400-pound hog.
At the prison, he helped form the tapping-coughing-sniffing communications system that kept the otherwise isolated captives in contact with one another. When the Communists discovered the system, they pitched Adm. Lawrence into a dank, tin-roofed cell. Prisoners called it “the Black Hole of Calcutta.”
During the next two months, he developed heat sores. For nourishment, he competed with enormous rats for scraps of bread.
Rats? Hogs? Few of us can even imagine surviving such treatment, much less writing poetry in our heads while undergoing beatings.
Admiral Lawrence later became the Poet Laureate for his beloved home state. He titled his memoirs, Tennessee Patriot.
I appreciated the Admiral’s connection with the Volunteer State especially when, one Sunday morning, I spied him sitting quietly on the bench outside the Naval Academy Chapel. He was waiting for his driver. I slipped in next to him and he asked me what I was working on. He was always genuinely interested in others.
I told him about my research in U.S. history, the Jackson Era. The Admiral proceeded to talk in detail about Andrew Jackson, how he was responsible for naming the state and other amazing details of Old Hickory’s life. Everything he told me proved correct and made it into the book I was then working on.
When Admiral Lawrence died in 2005, he was buried at the Academy with full military honors. His grave is at the highest point of land in the USNA Cemetery. How fitting for this high-flying son of Tennessee! And how fitting that we now have the USS William P. Lawrence defending our freedom.