updated 8/10/2005 7:53:47 AM ET 2005-08-10T11:53:47

William Lawson looked every bit the retired Marine general this summer as he stood before a crowd of 200 people, demanding that a cemetery properly dispose of the American flags placed at the graves of veterans.

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He had on khakis, the Marines’ summer service uniform, complete with a general’s stars and row after row of medals, including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Good Conduct Medal. He even wore an eyepatch.

It turns out, however, that Lawson wasn’t a general at all — or even a World War II combat veteran. His 19 months in the Marines were all spent stateside — he ended boot camp after Iwo Jima — and he never rose above the rank of private first class.

'Something that snowballed'
Lawson, 78, admitted the charade after being confronted with his records in interviews with The Marine Corps Times and The (Shreveport, La.) Times. The media checks came about after Lawson appeared at the flag rally in late June.

“It’s something that snowballed,” he said in stories that appeared in both newspapers this week.

Lawson did not answer his home telephone Monday when called by The Associated Press.

The Marine Corps Times said Lawson could face federal charges for wearing unearned medals and false rank insignia, and the Marine Corps inspector general is investigating.

According to the published reports, Lawson said he lived in Florida most of his adult life after his discharge in August 1946 and that he worked in the insurance, plastics and manufacturing fields until he retired and moved to Louisiana in the 1990s to be closer to his wife’s family.

He said he transferred his American Legion membership and somebody at the Shreveport post thought he was a retired general — he said he doesn’t know why. He went along with it, eventually agreeing to make public appearances at various Shreveport-area veterans’ events.

'Heartbreaking' deception
For Elmo Norton, a Marine Corps veteran of the Korean War and the new commander of the American Legion Post, the news was crushing.

“It just tears me up,” Norton said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Lawson had passed out coins — the kind of metal tokens generals and some senior enlisted give out in a long-followed military tradition. He even passed out coins at a recent post event to Marines from Bravo Company who just returned from a yearlong mobilization in Iraq.

“I’m shocked,” said Shayne McGinty, a captain with Bravo Company. “It’s not right, when there are Marines over there getting killed. It angers me and shocks me that he would do this.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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