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Artifact Friday: Dog Tags

Updated: Feb 15, 2023

We all know what dog tags are and what their main goal is but you may not know how they came to be. The term “dog-tag” was first coined by William Randolph Hearst in 1936 upon hearing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plan involving the Social Security Administration which would give out nameplates for each citizen like military identification. There are also rumors that the nickname comes from World War II soldiers who felt like they were being treated like dogs and the tags look similar to the metal tags dogs wear on their collars.

The idea of personal identification tags began around the outbreak of the Civil War when troops were afraid of not being identified and placed in an unmarked grave. Before the metal tags were established, men would mark their clothing with stencils or pin paper tags to their clothes. A few used old coins and round lead or copper, while some carved their names into round wooden chunks then attached a string to it so it hung around their necks. Engraved metal tags were produced by non- government sellers and purchased by those who could afford them. These non-government vendors typically followed alongside the armies during their travel to maintain resources. In 1862, a New Yorker named John Kennedy offered to make thousands of engraved disks for the troops but the War Department declined his offer. By not accepting the offer over 40% of Union soldiers remain unidentified; out of the 17,000 troops buried in Vicksburg National Cemetery nearly 13,000 are marked as unknown. By 1899 an official request for service members to have ID tags came at the end of the Spanish-American War. Army Chaplain Charles C. Pierce who was in charge of the Army Morgue and Office of Identification in the Philippines recommended that the Army outfit all soldiers with a circular disk to identify those who were severely injured in action. His request was fulfilled in December 1906 when the Army posted an order requiring all soldiers to wear an aluminum disc-shaped ID tag. These tags were worn under their field uniform and read the soldier’s name, rank, company, regiment, or corps. Army tags included men’s social security numbers up until 2015 when they began putting soldiers’ Defense Department identification numbers. In 1916 a second disc was required in addition to the first one. The first tag was to remain with the body while the second was for keeping burial service records. The Navy did not require identification tags until May of 1917 when all U.S combat forces were required to have them for war. After the first World War the Navy issued that only in a time of war would personal identification tags be necessary but after the Second World War they became a staple piece of the uniform. The Navy tags for the World War Two featured the officer’s name, rank, service number, blood type, vaccination for tetanus and a print of their right index finger. The dimension of tags stayed the same but the information included on it has changed slightly. New Navy dog tags include the name, service number, service, blood type and religion of a soldier. Similar to the history of Navy dog tags, the Marine Corps required personal identification tags in 1916 that featured the officers’ name, rank, service number, religion, blood type, vaccination for Tetanus, and USMC or USMCR. Now Marine tags include a soldier's first and last name, middle initial, blood type, social security number, USMC, gas mask size and religious preference. Most of the forces distinguish religious preferences by the first letter, P for Protestant, C for Catholic, and H for Hebrew. A dog tag in our collection from Mr. William J Morgan (as seen below) includes his emergency contact and address but those were removed from dog tags at the end of the second World War. Even with the advancements in DNA to identify remains, dog tags are still issued to service members today as a reminder of America’s efforts to honor those who make the ultimate sacrifice.

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