Penn State often names its landmarks, buildings, and streets after prominent figures in the university and State College communities. From Beaver to Pugh and Atherton to Allen, many legendary Penn Staters are immortalized by street signs and plaques that thousands of students pass by each day. William Garfield Thomas is not remembered as well as many of our former university presidents, but his decorated military service and the building Penn State named in his honor are just as important as the legacies they left behind.
Thomas was born in 1916 and grew up in Colver, Pennsylvania. He enrolled at Penn State in the 1930s, where he played on the soccer team and served as class secretary and historian. After graduating in 1938 with a degree in journalism, Thomas began working for the Ebensburg Coal Company and the Atlantic Refining Company.
He joined the Naval Reserve in 1940 and sailed to Cuba aboard the USS Wyoming, where he completed his naval training in three months and became a midshipman. Thomas was soon commissioned as an ensign and assigned to the USS Boise. Arriving in Pearl Harbor in 1941, Thomas and the USS Boise continued to sail the Pacific for more than a year during World War II. Thomas was promoted to the rank of lieutenant junior grade in 1942.
On October 11, 1942, the USS Boise came under fire in Cape Esperance in Guadalcanal. The Boise sunk six Japanese ships while taking enemy fire herself. As he manned the No. 1 turret aboard the ship, Thomas was critically injured when shrapnel from an explosion tore through his armored protection. He stayed behind as fire consumed the vessel, and ordered his men to abandon it. He died aboard the USS Boise, and was buried at sea. He was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart for his courage.
The Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, which Penn State dedicated in his honor in 1949, serves as his local legacy. Located along Atherton Street, the Water Tunnel has served as a research lab for the Department of Defense since the 1950s. Once the largest circulating water tunnel in the world, the U.S. Navy and Penn State faculty use it to address the technical issues of underwater mechanics. The two organizations reportedly planned to use the tunnel to test the overall efficiency of underwater hull and propeller combinations by making them faster and quieter.
The final price tag for the project came to nearly $2 million. The university’s records on the tunnel say it was built so that “a group of competent scientists, interested in research for the defense of the nation, could be brought together, provided with adequate facilities, and allowed complete freedom of action to do their best work.”
One of the lab’s projects involved the development of the Mark 48 torpedo, according to The Daily Collegian archives. Researchers acted as technical advisors for the Navy, but since the work was classified, students couldn’t know what exactly was being done.
The building’s mystery brought an unintended consequence of the tunnel in the form of anti-war protests during the Vietnam War. When students opposed to the war became concerned about what was happening behind closed doors, they staged protests in front of the lab and Old Main.
An underground student newspaper, “The Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel,” began printing on January 27, 1969. The first issue features a naked photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on its cover. In a shining example of how American universities encourage free speech, Penn State’s administration banned it. However, the newspaper managed to call out the university on a number of issues, such as the unequal representation of black students on campus and then-University President Eric Walker’s failure to respond to student demands, before printing stopped.
The newspaper’s inside cover dedication to Garfield includes a reference to his act of heroism to save his shipmates and the reason behind the publication’s title. “We dedicate this paper to Garf Thomas and the cause of world peace, for which he gave his life.”
Today, the tunnel is a part of Penn State’s Applied Research Lab. Only researchers are allowed to enter the building, but at night you can see the water tunnel through the glass façade when the inside lights are on. The maze of tubes and tunnels can be dizzying at times, but your head probably won’t spin nearly as fast as the propellers the tubes house.
Garfield is one of the first Penn State alumni to be killed in action during World War II. His legacy as a student and sailor lives on through the research conducted in the building that bears his name.