Burial Inquiry Challenges Big Donor's Claim Envoy in Arlington Grave Absent From WWII Files 

By Stephen Barr and Terry M. Neal Washington Post Staff Writers 
Friday, December 5, 1997

House Republicans said yesterday that an investigation of military records had turned up no sign that a major Democratic donor who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, M. Larry Lawrence, served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, as he had long claimed.

Lawrence was among 69 individuals over the last five years who received special waivers to be buried at the cemetery, the nation's most hallowed military burial ground. Last month, White House and Army officials, citing Lawrence's wartime record, vigorously defended the decision to allow him to be interred in Arlington.

But Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said, "We have found that Mr. Lawrence's name does not appear in at least three locations where a reasonable person would expect it to appear in the records."

The new questions about Lawrence revived a political drama that had seemed put to rest after Republicans backed off earlier accusations that President Clinton had rewarded rich Democratic donors with burial plots at Arlington. The issue, which inspired outrage both among those accusing and defending the administration, has been kept alive by the congressional inquiry and conservative commentators.

The new allegations arose after conservative columnist Arianna Huffington said that a longtime aide to Lawrence told her she believed his war record was a fabrication. The aide, Norma Nicholls, confirmed her account in an interview.

Yesterday's events raised the possibility of demands that Lawrence's body be removed from Arlington cemetery. "If that did turn out to be the case, it would be distressing, obviously," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said. Said Everett: "I don't know what we'll do."

Lawrence died in 1996 while serving as ambassador to Switzerland. Administration officials, who asked not to be identified, said they had accepted Lawrence's account of his wartime service at the time of his nomination in 1993, but acknowledged that State Department security officers had been unable to locate his military records then.

Lawrence and his family and companies gave about $200,000 to Democrats between 1991 and 1996, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He operated the famed Hotel del Coronado near San Diego, and Clinton sometimes vacationed with Lawrence, who was once named as one of the Forbes 400 richest Americans. Clinton delivered one of the eulogies at his funeral.

Lawrence's harrowing story of his wartime service impressed administration officials who met him. He recounted enlisting in the Merchant Marine in 1944 at the age of 18. He said that the following year he was aboard the liberty ship SS Horace Bushnell when it came under attack by a German submarine in the Arctic Ocean near the Russian port of Murmansk. During the torpedo attack, Lawrence said, he was thrown overboard and suffered serious head injuries.

Yesterday, Lawrence's widow, Sheila Davis Lawrence, said she was "shocked and dismayed" by the GOP news conference that raised doubt about Lawrence's military service.

"He is dead and cannot defend himself," Sheila Davis Lawrence said in a statement. "I am not prepared to change my beliefs based on statements by people who have previously demonstrated a meanness of spirit and a lack of concern for either truth or decency."

Everett defended the House investigation into Lawrence's record as an effort to preserve the integrity of the Arlington cemetery. The White House said last night that it had asked the State Department to conduct an inquiry in the Lawrence case.

In a letter to the secretaries of defense and state, Everett said a search of National Maritime Center records used to confirm World War II service failed to find Lawrence's name.

He said the center's deputy director, Donald J. Kerlin, told GOP investigators that "based on the evidence available to the center, he would conclude that Mr. Lawrence was not on the vessel SS Horace Bushnell and was not in the Merchant Marine."

Everett said Lawrence's name also does not appear on the official record of persons serving on the Horace Bushnell. The ship's casualty report lists the names of four crew members killed by the torpedo blast and a fifth who died from shock and a heart attack.

"There is no account of `serious head injuries' or of any injury to an individual named Lawrence," Everett wrote the Cabinet secretaries.

Administration memos released by Everett show that then-Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, apparently drawing on State Department files, provided the detailed account of Lawrence's seagoing heroism that served as part of the justification for his waiver to be buried at Arlington.

The Army said yesterday that five other U.S. ambassadors from previous administrations were granted exemptions for Arlington. "That basis alone would have been sufficient" for Lawrence, the Army said.

But Everett said Lawrence held a "second-tier ambassadorship, a political appointed ambassadorship."

Huffington, the conservative commentator, said she contacted Everett's committee last week with information provided to her by Nicholls, who had been an aide to Lawrence for 14 years.

Huffington met Nicholls through Lawrence's third wife, Jeanne Lawrence, who now lives in New York. Nicholls told Huffington, who has written two newspaper columns on the burial issue, that she believed Lawrence had made up the story. Nicholls, who lives in San Diego, was Lawrence's executive assistant and vice president of the Hotel del Coronado from 1979 to 1993.

In the early 1980s, Lawrence asked her to research "the names of Merchant Marine ships that would have been in the Western Pacific during World War II," Nicholls told The Washington Post yesterday. She said she put Lawrence in touch with an association affiliated with the Merchant Marine.

"Then he established a relationship with them," Nicholls said. "He would get their newsletters. He would send them contributions."

There was no mention of his service in the Merchant Marine on his resume when she first went to work for him in 1979, she said. But years later, she noticed that it was on his resume.

Nicholls said she remained friends with Lawrence, even after he fired her in 1993. She said that she blamed the firing on Lawrence's fourth wife, Sheila Davis Lawrence, and has no ax to grind with Lawrence.