SAN FRANCISCO -- There are a few places that hold a special place in the hearts of Marines. The depots where they first met their drill instructors. The Marine Corps War Memorial in Virginia and just down the road, the Marine Corps Museum. On the West Coast, a little secret is that city that boasts the history of the hippie movement is also home to a living memorial to Marines.
The Marines Memorial Association’s Marines Memorial Club is a mix of museum, rest and relaxation destination and tribute to all things Marine. It’s an oasis of dress blues and bulldogs in a city more known for trolleys and sourdough bread. It’s where Marines, young and old, rub elbows, share their history with just about anyone who will listen and take a moment to honor their past.
“The most fun time to be here is a Monday morning because the active duty come up here with their families and their kids,’ explained retired Maj. Gen. Mike Myatt, the president and chief executive officer for Marines Memorial Association. “What we see are our analog generation Marines, some World War II, Korean War, Vietnam vets who stay here and they’ll be up there having breakfast and then they’ll look across and there’s a young family of Marines… two kids are running around and the smiles on the faces these old analog generation people really brings life, well, to this whole club.”
The club was charted in 1946 by the Corps’ top commander, Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, according to Myatt. He was a veteran of some of the hardest battles in the Pacific and wanted a series of respite locations for his Marines across the nation. They would serve as a way to serve, honor and educate about who Marines are and what they do.
Originally, there were other clubs cities including New York, Chicago and New Orleans, according to John E. Lockie, a retired lieutenant colonel who volunteers at Marines Memorial Club.
But the club’s physical history is just a bit older. The building itself was built in the 1920’s, a Beaux-Arts hotel in the heart of San Francisco’s theater district. Myatt explained Marines Memorial Club started life as the Western Womens’ Club, one of four exclusively womens’ clubs in the city. The Depression hit and the club needed revenue. It just happened that about the same time, the Navy was enlisting more women into service and needed a safe place to house them. Soon, the Western Womens’ Club became the barracks for the Navy’s WAVES, short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
Before long, especially after World War II was over, Marines found the place. It was the same time that Vandegrift was looking for a location for his living memorial.
“We had almost a half million Marines in the Pacific in the period of the second World War,” Myatt explained, adding Vandegrift was asking for suitable club locations. “Well the Marines that had been coming back from the Pacific. They were saying , “Hey, I’ve been gone from the United States for a long time, I’d like to get a date. Where can I get a date? Well, there’s this WAVES barracks up on Sutter and Mason.’”
Since Marines were already making themselves known around the location, Vandegrift went about to make it his own. He took excess money that was earmarked to buy the smaller items for Marines during the invasion of Japan – razors and soap – and turned those into funds for the hotel. Along with a loan, the building was purchased in 1946 for $1.1 million.
“They weren’t quite sure who owned the building back then,” Myatt added. “Actually, it went to the Marine Corps Leatherneck, the magazine.”
After about two months, they figured they weren’t authorized to own a building in San Francisco. So the Marines Memorial Association was formed to be the organization that owned and cared for the Marines Memorial Club. Membership was originally all Marines, opening up to the other services in 1947.
The club now is still operating as originally intended. The nonprofit organization rents rooms to military and retirees their 138 rooms and hosts lecture series as well as performances in their 646-seat theater that has hosted the likes of Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra.
Just about every wall and every corner is adorned with Marine Corps memorabilia. The lobby is host to the bell from the USS San Francisco and Marine uniforms and weapons from wars dating back to the Revolution. Battle streamers and medals take up special places of honor. But it doesn’t stop there.
The doors to the elevator open up on floor to photos dedicated to all the Corps’ commandants from 1946 through today’s top general, Gen. James F. Amos. They’ve even got a uniform donated by Gen. Al Gray, complete with his four stars on the shoulders and ribbons and badges. The enlisted aren’t left out. There are photos of each of the sergeant majors of the Marine Corps, right up through Sgt. Maj. Micheal P. Barrett.
That’s not enough though. Marines place a nearly godlike status on their commandants and sergeants majors. Their heroes… they are above reproach. They’ve got their own display on another floor. Marines who earned the Medal of Honor are all afforded space on the wall, including Dan Daly, who was awarded with two during his life. Cpl. Jason Dunham was given the most recent space.
“Sometimes I look at it and I say, ‘God what a sacrifice,’” Lockie said. “It’s an instant thing that you do, but these young men and women who have in fact lost their lives did that simple act. I certainly understand what we are doing.’
Preparations are underway for Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who the White House recently announced will be given the nation’s highest military award.
The Corps’ legendary Lt.Gen. Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller has his own space, his bulldog-like face staring out, still inspecting Marines as they pass by. And Col. John Ripley, who was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions at Dong Ha in the Vietnam War is featured with his photo and a signed illustration of him hanging under the girders of the bridge he destroyed.
Puller and Ripley will soon have more company. Each Marine who earned the Corps’ second highest combat award will get their own spot soon, Lockie said.
On another floor are hundreds of wooden plaques, donated by families to honor their servicemembers.
“These are reflections of somebody who has either died or has served well in a particular capacity and their parents or their daughter or their son or somebody wants to immortalize them,” Lockie said.
Joe Rosenthal, the photographer of the famous flag raising on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima has his own place of honor. As the doors to the elevator open on one of the floors, the photo is there, surrounded by several other images of Rosenthal himself or others he took during his career.
Nearly to the top of the hotel, Marines Memorial Club boasts a library, a collection of tall bookshelves of military-themed books that line all the walls. Displays of combat helmets, uniform items and even one of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s corn cob pipes are available for view.
Further up is one of the Club’s most-recent endeavors. It’s a reflection room, tiled with more than 5,000 small rectangular black tiles bearing the name of a servicemember killed in action in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a solemn room where servicemembers, guests and families have spent time remembering their fallen.
“When people are up here and looking at a plaque of their son or something, you’ve got to leave, Lockie explained. “It just gets so emotional. You look at it and it’s just a sense of overwhelming emotion.’
Lockie said that there’s one for each servicemember, from all services. They’ve tallied more than 5,600 so far. At the time interviewing, the names of the 30 Navy SEALs were just released and Lockie said they would be soon added.
At the top of Marines Memorial Club is the restaurant and bar, honoring flying Leathernecks. In one corner is the actual Medal of Honor presented to Col. Gregory “Pappy” Boyington. Lockie said it was donated by Boyington’s wife in an ordinary box. He was rumored to be a tough character who was notoriously hard to get along with, and a hard drinker to boot.
“She came in and had it in a box and said here it is,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”
In the bar are three “last man” bottles. One is set aside for the Marines of the “Chosin Few,” veterans of the Chosin Reservoir battle. Another is set aside for combat veterans of 1st Marine Division from World War II and the third for Korean combat veterans of the same unit.
“They decided they would buy a bottle of quality brandy and the last guy living would actually open it up and drink a toast to everybody,” Lockie said the Chosin Few bottle. “I’m not sure how they keep track, but each time they have a convention, they say, okay, who’s left. I think that when they get to a platoon size, they might open the bottle and have a drink.”
Today’s the Marines Memorial Club, under the stewardship of the Marines Memorial Association is continuing with Vandegrift’s original charter. They’re honoring servicemembers, honoring their history and educating others to who and what Marines are to the nation.
“If you’re going to show something off,” Lockie mused, “why not the Marine Corps?”