October 09, 2006
The lore of the Corps
Hotel was envisioned as a ‘living memorial’

By Matt Hevezi
Special to the Times

During World War II, the San Francisco Bay Area was a bustling military epicenter and way station for throngs of Marines and sailors shipping out to places such as Tarawa, Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The Marine Corps’ ranks swelled to more than 500,000 in the early 1940s, and the Golden Gate Bridge was many leathernecks’ last glimpse of America before sailing into combat against the Japanese.

Gen. Alexander Vandegrift — who commanded 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal in 1942, received the Medal of Honor and later became commandant of the Marine Corps — decided Marines fighting in the Pacific deserved a memorial. He pitched the idea of purchasing a building as a “living memorial” for the Corps.

The building he had in mind had been erected in 1926 and originally served as the Western Women’s Club, an exclusive venue for San Francisco’s society matrons. But the club fell on hard times and eventually opened rooms as temporary barracks for the Navy’s new crop of female volunteers, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, commonly known as WAVES. Leathernecks shipping in and out of San Francisco during the war discovered the building was a good place to find a date.

With help from the Leatherneck Association and leftover post exchange war funds following the Japanese surrender, Vandegrift’s memorial idea became reality. On Nov. 10, 1946 — the Corps’ 171st birthday — the 12-story building opened as the Marines’ Memorial Club & Hotel.

The club’s top floor includes an elegant dining room with sweeping views of downtown San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Treasure Island. The bar is stocked with Leatherneck Lager, brewed locally by a former Marine. The club also has an indoor pool, three ballrooms and an exercise room.

Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby graced the stage in the Marines Memorial Theater, which is open to the public. Famous leathernecks such as Medal of Honor recipient Mitchell Paige and former Commandant Gen. Al Gray have stayed over night.

The club serves active-duty members, reservists and veterans of all branches. But it maintains its Marine character and heritage: It’s difficult to find a wall without a bulldog or Marine Corps emblem. The 138-room facility also added a memorial with more than 2,600 ceramic plaques for the men and women who’ve died in Iraq.

Active-duty Marines can stay at the club for a discounted rate.

The writer is a former Marine and can be reached at hevezim@aol.com. Find more information about the club online at www.marineclub.com.