August 08, 2005
Legion member’s buddies thought he was major general
By John Hoellwarth
Times staff writer
SHREVEPORT, La. — William J. Lawson’s hands shook as he held the reproduction of a 60-year-old military service record.
He had just been handed the record of a Marine who served from Jan. 10, 1945, to Aug. 6, 1946.
He read the file, noting that the young leatherneck was discharged as a private first class whose decorations included only marksmanship badges. Turning to the last page, the 78-year-old man was confronted with a picture of the teenager, who he would later describe as looking sad.
He was asked: “Do you recognize this Marine?”
He closed the file and put it on the table in front of him at the American Legion Post in Shreveport that had become the center of his social life since moving to Louisiana 13 years ago.
He looked up with his good eye and said, “I believe I do,” his voice shaky, almost broken.
And just like that, his six-year portrayal of a highly decorated Marine major general was over. He asked to be called “Bill.”
A ruse unravels
Lawson’s wife, Syble, had warned him for years to give up the ruse, reminding him over and over that it would catch up to him one day. The beginning of his undoing came June 22. Lawson attracted national media attention when he showed up in uniform to deliver a rousing speech to Shreveport citizens gathered in protest after groundskeepers at Forest Park Cemetery threw away items left at grave sites there, including several American flags.
One person who was there described the event as bearing a striking resemblance to the last scene of “Frankenstein,” with a riotous mob of citizens ready to crucify Robert Lomison, president of Forest Park Cemeteries and Funeral Home. A combat-wounded, Silver Star-sporting retired major general was “leading the charge.”
It didn’t take long for a photo of Lawson to hit the news wires. A subsequent investigation by Marine Corps Times uncovered Lawson’s true military record and offered a glimpse of a young man who celebrated only one Marine Corps birthday as an active-duty leatherneck.
Although he claimed to rate a Silver Star for actions on Iwo Jima during World War II, he was in New York awaiting his first day in boot camp when the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi in February 1945.
He was a recruit at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., a few months later when the Marines conducted their last amphibious landing of the Pacific island-hopping campaign, hitting the beach on Okinawa, Japan.
He was assigned to a training battalion at Camp Lejeune, N.C., when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and the Japanese later capitulated.
The eager young man who attended high school at Xavier Military Academy and sought his parents’ permission to enlist in the Marines before his 18th birthday never got to fight.
“I wanted to fight,” he said. “I was trained for it. I was prepared to fight Japan on the home front.”
Instead, Lawson’s military career was cut short while he served at Camp Pendleton, Calif. A wayward military tractor pinned him against a wall, blew out both of his knees and broke his ankle.
His record shows he was transferred to a military hospital detachment for injured Marines on May 8, 1946. He spent more than three months in recovery before his final transfer to Camp Pendleton’s Separation Company. Eleven days later, he was discharged from the Corps.
“I felt cheated when I got hurt and they discharged me,” he said. “’Cause I wanted to make the Corps my life.”
To this day, Lawson wears braces on his lower legs and motors around the legion post on a motorized scooter that is also a fixture on the back of his car. He wears a patch because he lost his eye to a retinal condition that afflicts some seniors.
Lawson said that after he got out of the Corps, he spent his working years with an insurance agency and in the plastics industry before retiring.
But word around the legion post is that Lawson was left a large sum of money after his father died, which allowed him to buy a large house in one of Shreveport’s more affluent neighborhoods and effectively portray the very model of a modern major general.
A hero in Shreveport
When Marine Corps Times interviewed Lawson in Shreveport on Aug. 4, he was on his way to a meeting of the “Forty and Eight,” which members of the American Legion describe as the invitation-only inner circle of the organization. As one legionnaire put it, the Forty and Eight is to the American Legion what the Shriners are to the Masons.
Lawson agreed to meet at the legion post and arrived wearing a Marine Corps ball cap adorned with both his signature two stars and studded with pins representing his top-shelf awards.
There was a long pause as he reviewed his service record.
“I believe ...,” he paused and restarted.
“For the good of the legion ...,” he paused to restart again.
Then, he just began at the beginning.
Lawson said his deception started when he moved to Louisiana from Cudjoe, Fla., and someone at the legion post got the idea he was a retired general. He described it as a case of mistaken identity, and he eventually acquiesced in 1999, thinking he could use the legion’s willingness to accept him as a general to positively influence his community.
“I said, ‘Do not start this general stuff here, please,’” Lawson said, noting that people were “fairly good for about six months, then it started to get out.”
Though over the years he has declined every offer to take on a formal leadership role at the legion, word of Lawson’s status as a general quickly spread from the post to the Shreveport community at large, which embraced him as a sort of local veterans’ spokes-man and activist.
“Things got beyond where they should have gotten,” Lawson explained. “I wish it would have stayed low-key, but [the legion post] kept throwing stuff at me.”
Lawson appeared at numerous city- and veteran-sponsored community events at the Veteran’s Memorial on Shreveport’s Clyde Fant Parkway. On Memorial Day 2004, Lawson showed up wearing his award-laden cap.
“The first time I did anything in this is when they asked me to come to the dedication for the Purple Heart monument,” he said, referring to an event four years ago organized by the local chapter of The Military Order of the Purple Heart. “My assumption was that they’d ask me to go around with them and see Marines at the [local Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals].
“Next thing is that I’d give a talk in reference to the flag,” he said, referring to his appearance at Forest Park Cemetery. “Lomison got himself into a pickle. I was trying to do some good. I was trying to do what I thought a major general would do.”
Maintaining the illusion
When asked to put his lie in perspective, knowing so many Marines are earning legitimate awards for combat valor even now, Lawson said, “I feel I … I have felt all along not too happy with that. It’s something that has snowballed.”
Even so, Lawson had to take some deliberate steps in maintaining appearances. When asked about the cost of impersonating a major general, he said he spent more than $1,000 getting everything just right.
When asked about how he chose the medals he would wear or ensure he placed them in the correct order, Lawson said he took a very specific approach to the awards.
“The awards were picked from a picture of … I don’t remember who it was,” he said. “I’m trying to remember. It was in one of the Marine Corps books.”
Lawson said that over the years his wife has asked him, “Why don’t you stop this before it gets out of hand?”
His reply: “It’s already out of hand.”
Lawson’s chief concern now is the damage this will do to his relationship with his wife, but he was also mindful of the damage it will do to his relationship with the community that has thus far embraced its resident major general.
What happens next
Lawson could face up to six months in jail and have to pay a fine, said Thomas A. Cottone Jr., a special agent with the FBI based in West Paterson, N.J., who investigates medals frauds — primarily false Medal of Honor claims — and phony service members. Cottone was not familiar with Lawson’s case but discussed such situations in general terms.
If prosecuted, Lawson would be charged under with wearing medals or other decorations he did not rate and for wearing a military uniform, which includes wearing false rank insignia. Whether charges are brought ultimately rests with the local district attorney who would prosecute the case, he said. Since Lawson is a civilian and therefore not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he would not be charged with impersonating an officer, Cottone said.
But the worst penalty a person in a situation like Lawson’s could face is the inevitable public humiliation he would receive in his community, Cottone said.
“I still say the worst penalty for these imposters is being publicly identified,” he said.
Cottone added that someone like Lawson also could be guilty of public theft — but that’s more figurative. While masquerading as a two-star general, he has likely been given services and other gifts for free or at a discounted rate simply because of who people thought he was.
“He’s got a bunch of unearned things, solely because they think he’s a two-star general,” he said. “In some sense, he’s been committing thefts for years.”
Cottone recalled another man who was impersonating a brigadier general in New Jersey. The man paraded about with three Navy Crosses he didn’t rate and was giving speeches at the local military base.
“He went to the country club, and everyone referred to him as ‘general,’” Cottone said.
As Cottone’s investigation drew to a close, officials learned that the man would be the featured speaker at an event on Memorial Day. Sometime after the FBI busted the man, he committed suicide, Cottone said.
Cottone, who has been investigating these sorts of crimes for 10 years, said it’s important to maintain the significance of rank insignia, medals and the military uniform.
“If none of these things means anything, then why not make everyone a four-star general,” he said.
A spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters said the Corps’ office of the inspector general will investigate.
“As a matter of course, the inspector general’s office would be the one to initially investigate any claims of someone who is improperly wearing the uniform or medals,” said Maj. Douglas Powell.
If they determine there is “credible evidence” against such a person, the matter could be turned over to the staff judge advocate general or to the FBI, he said.
Powell said it’s important for Marines to understand how seriously the Corps takes these matters. Lawson’s alleged crime is an insult to every other service member on active duty, he said.
“This guy wearing a uniform smacks every other service member in the face while they’re putting their life on the line,” he said.
A community reacts
Contacted for comment on Lawson’s ruse, Lomison, the cemetery president, said he was “overwhelmed and saddened” for him.
“I took great umbrage to Mr. Lawson’s attacks on my patriotism and support of veterans. Errors were made during the Forest Park spring cleaning, but we admitted our mistakes and took responsibility for our actions,” Lomison said. “I sincerely hope that Mr. Lawson will do the same. My thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Lawson.”
Reactions among American Legion members seemed to be a shared sense of shock and disbelief. Those legionnaires who had the opportunity to view Lawson’s records invariably shook and scratched their heads for a few moments before declining to go on the record with a comment.
One legionnaire pointed out that the post commander went to high school with Lawson’s wife and that even though he obviously wasn’t a major general, his enlisted service still makes him eligible for membership in the legion.
Lawson, whose drinks are served in a uniquely spotted glass he asks for specifically every time he drinks at the post’s bar, isn’t so sure he’ll be able to overcome his shame enough to continue his membership.
“It’s probably going to be bad enough that I’ll lose a lot of friends I hold dear,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll move back to Florida.”
Shreveport (La.) Times military reporter John Andrew Prime and Marine Corps Times staff writer Gordon Lubold contributed to this report.
Thats just sickening
Marines know better
I'd like to personally kick the shitbag in the balls....I wouldn't call this bastard a fellow Marine.
What makes it even worse to me is that my grandfather (who passed away last year after a long battle with diabetes and kidney failure, and the man I respect most in this world) dedicated his whole life to the Army and earned the rank of Brigadier General - this asshat spent a year in the Corps, and then spent his whole life lying about it....maybe not his whole life, but you get my meaning.
He joined the Marines during WWII and was hurt while in the Marines. He's a poser and still deserves to get his ass kicked, but we shouldn't forget what he did do right.z
I detest young posers, I pity old posers.