During the American Civil War (1861-65), only 58% of soldiers killed in action were positively identified. Soldiers worried that if they were killed, their families would never know what happened to them, other than that they were missing in action. They wrote their names on a piece of paper or a handkerchief, and pinned it to their clothing before going into battle. Some soldiers went to the trouble of carving small wooden discs with their names on them. They drilled a hole in the disc and hung the disc from their neck with a piece of string.
The issue was further complicated by inadequate recordkeeping of personnel assigned to and fighting as regulars or volunteers in both the Union and Confederate militaries, and lost records pertaining to burial locations. The first attempt to provide identification tags were called “name discs” or “soldier pins” of various designs, and there was no specific uniformity pertaining to the information provided. Despite their best efforts to mark themselves, historians estimate that 50% of those killed in the Civil War were either unaccounted for or simply marked unknown. The nation debated how to address this issue to ensure Americans were properly accounted for, returned home, and given proper burial.
Eventually, merchants began producing and selling metal disks to soldiers. Harper’s Weekly Magazine advertised “soldier’s pins” made of silver or gold and etched with the soldier’s name and unit. Some soldiers made their own ID tags by grinding off one side of a coin and then etching their names on it. Dogs wore similar identification tags, so it wasn’t long before soldiers began referring to their ID tags as dog tags.
By the 1890s, the U.S. Army and Navy began experimenting with issuing metal identification tags to recruits. During WWI, the French wore a bracelet with a metal disk that was engraved with the soldier’s name, rank and formation.
On Dec. 20, 1906, by General Order #204, the United States government decided upon a circular aluminum disc to be worn as an identification tag, and by 1913, the identification discs were required for all military service members. An aluminum disc the size of a silver half dollar – imprinted with the name, rank, company, regiment or corps, worn by both officer and enlisted member in the field – suspended around the neck.
The U.S. entrance into World War I (1914-1918) in 1917 sped up the production and issuance of the identification tags to ensure all service members, killed or wounded, were accurately identified and accounted for on the field of battle. During World War I, military service members began wearing two identification tags that were hand-stamped with their name, rank, serial number, unit and religion – one remained attached to the body of the deceased while the second was used to mark the coffin or the grave site, often where they fought and died. The tags were suspended from their necks by cord or tape.
During WWII (1939-1945), tags were stamped by a machine and were rectangular shaped with round ends and a notch at one end. It was rumored that the notch was put in the tag so that the tag could be placed in a dead soldier’s mouth and would hold it open so that the gasses would escape and the body wouldn’t become bloated. Fortunately, the truth was a little less gruesome. The stamping machine required a notch to hold the blank in place as it was being stamped.
The tags were first made of brass and later a corrosion-resistant alloy of nickel and copper. By the end of the war, all tags were made from stainless steel. Meanwhile, military service members during World War II began to use tape or black silicone to silence the “clinking” sound the tags made as they walked with them hung around their necks. They were suspended from the neck by a rope, a beaded chain, or a stainless steel wire with a plastic cover. It was during World War II the nickname “dog tags” was adopted.
During the 1950s, the two dog tags were detailed to each service member for a specific purpose regarding accountability. One identification tag was placed on a long chain, while the second was hung on a shorter chain. Upon death, the identification tag on the shorter chain was placed around the toe of the deceased, thus the nickname “toe tag” was given to this identification tag. The other dog tag was to either remain with the deceased or collected, as time permitted, by survivors to report back the name of the deceased.
During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), new stamping machines were used and the notch was eliminated. Soldiers began taping their tags together so that they wouldn’t make any noise and give away their position. By the end of the war, rubber covers were developed to keep the tags silent. Soldiers often put one tag in their boot, tied in with their bootlaces. The thought was if their body was dismembered to an extent they were unidentifiable, the dog tag in the boot helped with the recovery of their remains.
Today, the issuance of military dog tags remains an important component of military culture, but reliance on dog tags is more symbolic as technology advances. The dog tags are still stamped with important information (name, serial/social security number, blood type and religious preference), but the military uses medical/dental records and DNA sampling to positively identify deceased military service members.
As technology advances so have the materials and processes used to properly identify America’s service members and return them home with honor.
Harold B. Wolford is president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1095. He served in the United States Army from 1970 to 1973. Wolford can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.