Bay Area military tradition of the ‘Squadron Bottle’ revived at Top of the Mark

SAN FRANCISCO — A Navy veteran who lives near the water south of San Francisco helped spur the revival of a bygone military tradition at one of the city’s most famed bars.

When Mike Hall of Pacifica comes close to the ocean, it stirs his heart and speaks to his soul.

“When I come to the beach, and I smell the salty sea air, and I hear the sounds of the waves crashing, all those memories, all those experiences, come rushing back,” said Hall.

The Squadron Bottle display at the Top of the Mark.

CBS


Hall is a veteran of the U.S. Navy. He graduated from Annapolis and served his country as a naval officer for more than 6 years. He told KPIX 5 how he shares an unspoken bond with his fellow vets.

“Whether they served 100 years ago or they’re going to serve 100 years into the future, there is legacy of serving in the United States military that binds us all together,” said the former Naval officer.

In 2009, while on leave, Hall decided to partake in a special tradition. It started at the Mark Hopkins hotel during World War II.

During the war, San Francisco played a major role in the moving of troops and supplies to and from the Pacific.  Before many soldiers and sailors departed, they partook in a routine that became known as the “Squadron Bottle.”

They headed to the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel to have a final drink on American soil. Reports suggest 30,000 members of the military participated every month, with lines at times stretching around the block. 

The routine often included toasting the Golden Gate Bridge for a safe return, or in honor of a fallen soldier.

With this tradition, servicemen would buy and leave a bottle in the care of the bartender so the next member from their squadron could enjoy a free drink.

If you finished the squadron bottle, you bought a new one to leave behind.

Mike Hall knew about the tradition and, a number of years ago and sporting his dress whites, headed up the famous lounge to participate.

“The Squadron Bottle embodies and represents those bonds, that teamwork, that camaraderie,” said Hall.

He headed to bar and asked the bartender for the Squadron Bottle, but alas, none remained.  Hall then bought one and left it along with a logbook for future troops to sign.

He recently returned to the visit the hotel. When he got off the elevator at the Top, nothing could prepare him for what he saw: a huge display crammed with dozens of Squadron Bottles.  

On each one, a note detailing who bought it and why: bottles from Air Force pilots and infantry battalions, sailors, U.S. Marines, U.S. Rangers, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. Families, friends and perfect strangers all bought bottles. The hotel credits Hall for the revival. 

“Just having Mr. Hall in here and seeing what he was able to create, that we had started in WWII and just kind of lost over time. And it’s just really nice to be able to bring it back and now kind of exceed what it once was,” said Phil Amidon, the Director of Food & Beverage at the Mark Hopkins.

As for Hall’s logbook, there are now several. Each one quickly fills up.

“What’s amazing is the amount of different generations that have gone thru these books as well, and left their stories, their pictures: WWII, the Korean War, Vietnam, everything up to our generation now,” Amidon told Hall.

These logbooks are treasure troves, packed with astounding bits of history. Inside, many stories, letters, memorial programs, notes of appreciation and photographs of those who came home, as well as those who died while serving the nation.

By way of the Squadron Bottles and the logbooks, for years to come  generations will able to read and reflect on what it means to serve a bigger purpose, and to help ensure those memories are never forgotten.

“Those little momentos left in those books — and the bottles left there for people to have a drink with — represent as we say the ‘links in the chain,'” said Hall, as he took in another deep breath of ocean air.

Anyone can buy a bottle at the Top of the Mark and leave it for the Squadron Bottle collection. And any active military or vet can partake in the tradition. They just need to present their military ID. During Fleet Week, the Top of the Mark will open early to celebrate the U.S Armed Services and also host special program for viewing the Blue Angels this week. It is available on the hotel’s website.

More information about San Francisco’s historical role as a point of embarkation for the U.S. military is available here.

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