Campus landmarks honor military service of Penn Staters

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Memorial Day at Penn State is an appropriate time to reflect on those members of the University community who made the supreme sacrifice in military service to their country.

The University Park campus holds a number of landmarks that commemorate those heroes.

The most recent is the Veterans Plaza, located near the northeast corner of Old Main. A gift of the class of 2011, the plaza honors all Penn State students, living and deceased, who have served in the United States Military. The plaza's curved wall is named to honor Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a member of the class of 1998 and the first University alumnus to be awarded the Medal of Honor. A Navy Seal, Lt. Murphy received this singular distinction posthumously for his courageous actions in 2005 during the war in Afghanistan.

“Our plan was to pay fitting tribute to Penn State veterans and to our only Medal of Honor recipient with dignity and gratitude,” said 2011 senior class gift committee chair Benjamin Witt. About 3,000 seniors donated to the class gift fund.

The designers of the plaza, New York-based Ennead Architects, intend it to be part of the campus pedestrian circulation system, as well as a peaceful place to pause on the way to other destinations. It’s nestled against a backdrop of greenery and slightly removed from the daily activity around it.

The Veterans Plaza joins a number of other highly visible symbols of the high cost of preserving liberty and freedom in a troubled world.

Adjacent to the southeast corner of Beaver Stadium, at the intersection of Porter and Curtin Roads, stand two 60-foot black oak trees, memorials to Penn State forestry students who lost their lives in World Wars I and II. The trees were planted in 1957 — the 50th anniversary of the creation of the University’s baccalaureate curriculum in forestry — by a predecessor of today’s School of Forest Resources Alumni Group, an affiliate of the larger Penn State Alumni Association.

A block west of Beaver Stadium along Curtin Road is Wagner Building, home of the University’s Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC units. Opened in 1958, the building honors Harrisburg native Harry Edward Wagner, an arts and letters major and member of the class of 1941. As a student, “Eddie” Wagner was president of the Interfraternity Council and a member of the Skull and Bones honorary. As a lieutenant in the famed 82nd Airborne Division, he participated with other paratroopers in the Normandy invasion of June 1944. He was killed that month by German artillery fire and is buried in a military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

“Every time one of our Penn State Alumni Association tours goes to Normandy, we pay homage to his memory at the foot of his grave,” said the association’s executive director, Roger Williams. “He is emblematic of the 384 Penn Staters — including 44 from the class of 1941 — who lost their lives in World War II. They never got to live out their lives and enjoy the world their sacrifice saved.”

Outside the main entrance to Wagner Building on Curtin Road is displayed the bell from the battleship Pennsylvania, a vessel that participated in most major Pacific theatre engagements beginning with Pearl Harbor in 1941. (The Pennsylvania was in drydock at Pearl Harbor and suffered relatively minor damage from the Japanese attack.) It is not known precisely how many Penn Staters served aboard the Pennsylvania during almost four years of war, but it's a safe bet that dozens did, especially when those sailors are included who enrolled at Penn State on the G.I. Bill after the war.

Inside Wagner Building, visitors can see a finely detailed 1:48 scale model of the Pennsylvania, completed at the same time as the ship itself, 1917. The model is on long-term loan from the Naval Sea Systems Command, which is responsible for building, engineering and supporting the U.S. Navy’s fleet of ships and combat systems.

Also in Wagner Building reside several tributes to Penn State veterans of the armed forces. Two memorials list the names of those students in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps who have died in service to their country during the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of these, the Penn State Fallen Warriors Memorial, states, “We will always mourn their deaths, celebrate their lives and remember their sacrifices. Although they have slipped the bonds of Earth, the memory of their indomitable spirits remains to remind us of the high price of freedom.”

“We will always mourn their deaths, celebrate their lives and remember their sacrifices. Although they have slipped the bonds of Earth, the memory of their indomitable spirits remains to remind us of the high price of freedom.”

– the Penn State Fallen Warriors Memorial

The first Penn Stater to lose his life in World War II was a sailor: William Garfield Thomas of the class of 1938. Hailing from Colver, a small Cambria County coal mining town, Thomas earned his degree in journalism. Like Wagner, he was a member of Skull and Bones and, as a senior, was elected class historian. At the Battle of Cape Esperance, an engagement in the Guadalcanal campaign, in November 1942, he made history.

“Garf,” as he was known to his campus pals, was a lieutenant j.g. (junior grade) aboard the light cruiser Boise when Japanese shell fire hit the gun turret he captained. He got his eight crewmen out but stayed behind to help the men escape from the ammunition handling room below when the turret exploded. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the highest combat distinction bestowed by that branch of the military. “With utter disregard for his own personal safety he remained behind to ensure the abandonment of the perilous area,” reads the Navy's citation, “despite the fact that he, too, might have easily escaped.”

In 1944 the Navy named a newly commissioned destroyer escort in his memory. The USS Garfield Thomas went on to serve with distinction in both Atlantic and Pacific theatres.

In 1949 Penn State named a new campus research facility, the Garfield Thomas Water Tunnel, in recognition of his bravery. Sponsored by the Navy, it ranks among the largest circulating water tunnels anywhere. It enables accurate testing of the acoustical qualities of underwater shapes, such as submarine hulls, torpedoes and propeller designs. Still operational as part of the University’s Applied Research Laboratory, it is located on the west side of Atherton Street near the IST Building.

Wagner and Thomas are memorialized on a large plaque in Old Main’s lobby along with the names of all other Penn Staters who lost their lives in World War II.

Alongside that plaque is another of equally impressive dimensions, which bears the names of 74 Penn Staters who died in World War I — the “war to end all wars,” as it was described at the time. Sadly, that noble sentiment did not bear fruit. The plaques are temporarily unavailable for viewing because of ongoing Old Main restoration efforts.

As Lt. Michael Murphy has most recently shown, Penn Staters continue to respond courageously when their nation calls, and they are still prepared to give their all.

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Last Updated May 29, 2013