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History Matters: Dog Tags

By David A. Fryxell Premium

This August marks the centennial of the start of World War I, the first war in which US soldiers (who entered the fight in 1917) went into battle wearing “dog tags.” This identification innovation reduced the number of unknown soldiers from an estimated two of five dead in the Civil War to just 2 percent in World War I—1,644 unidentified American doughboys.


As early as China’s Taiping revolt (1851 to 1866), soldiers on both sides had worn wooden identification tags, attached at the belt. These bore the soldier’s name, age, birthplace, unit and date of enlistment.

The carnage of America’s Civil War made all too obvious the need for such a system, especially for Union troops who fell in hostile territory. Of the approximately 300,000 Union dead who were located, exhumed and reinterred in national cemeteries, 54 percent were classified as “unknown.” At Vicksburg National Cemetery, the unknowns numbered three-quarters. Only 1 percent of the 12,126 Union soldiers buried at North Carolina’s Salisbury National Cemetery could be identified.

Civil War soldiers resorted to do-it-yourself identification schemes, writing their names on the bottoms of shoes and on knapsacks, on paper tags pinned to uniforms, and on pieces of wood that dangled from strings about their necks. The soft lead lining of Army belt buckles lent itself to scratching crude identification details.

Sensing a commercial opportunity even in wartime, vendors began advertising machine-stamped “Soldier’s Pins” in periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly. Made of brass or lead, these often had an eagle or shield on one side along with patriotic slogans such as “War for the Union” or “Liberty, Union, and Equality,” with the soldier’s name on the reverse.

Other nations soon began to institute identification systems for their troops. At the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Prussian Army issued tags nicknamed Hundemarken—“dog tags”—for their resemblance to a licensing system for dogs launched in Berlin about the same time. By the start of World War I, most forces from the British Commonwealth, including British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops, were equipped with aluminum or fiber (a linoleum-like material) identification tags. Issued in pairs, one red and one green, and suspended from the neck by butcher’s twine, these set the pattern for succeeding British wars. If a fallen soldier could be reached but not retrieved, one tag could be buried with the body and the other removed for notifying his unit. French troops in the trenches of the Great War wore oval metal tags attached to chain bracelets around their wrists.


In 1899, US Army Chaplain Charles C. Pierce began advocating for a standard “identity disc” in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Working in a Manila morgue, Pierce observed how soldiers wearing unofficial identification pins were much likelier to be sent home for burial. He proposed to the Quartermaster Office a disc made of aluminum, about the size of a half-dollar. “It is better that all men shall wear these marks as a military duty,” he wrote, “than that one should fail to be identified.”

But Pierce’s recommendation wasn’t adopted until 1906, and remained optional until 1913. The first US dog tags destined for service in World War I, issued in August 1917, were square, aluminum, and bore the soldier’s name and serial number. In February 1918, a pair of tags, usually one square and one round, replaced them, followed in July 1918 by twin tags similar to Pierce’s original half-dollar-size design. A religious designation (C for Catholic, P for Protestant, H for “Hebrew”) could be added to name, rank and serial number. In the event of death on the battlefield, one tag would remain with the body, tied about the ankle or feet (the “toe tag”), while the other was placed outside the coffin and might wind up nailed to a cross or Star of David at the gravesite.

Just prior to World War II, in 1940, the US Army switched to the familiar stainless steel rectangular tag with rounded corners, which soldiers began to call dog tags. A machine resembling a typewriter embossed the “M1940” identification tag according to this scheme: first line, soldier’s full name; second line, serial number plus date of tetanus vaccinations and blood type; third through fifth lines, address of next of kin and abbreviation for religion. In 1944, the Army removed the next of kin information for fear it might benefit the enemy.

The notch at one end of the M1940, according to one source, was for holding the tag in place when embossing the soldier’s identifying information. Another version says the notch was designed to position the tag for imprinting on a carbon-paper medical form by the pistol-type Model 70 Addressograph.

A more gruesome—and a mythical—story of the notch’s purpose was to position the tag between a dead comrade’s  front teeth, to hold the jaws open. That supposedly would allow gases that built up in the body after death to escape, preventing bloating.

The US Navy had introduced its own dog tags in 1917, ovals made of Monel metal—a patented corrosion-resistant alloy of nickel and copper, with small amounts of iron and manganese—to survive submersion. These were encased in a cotton sleeve and worn about the neck on a chain also made of Monel. Regular sailors’ tags were etched with initials and surname, plus dates of enlistment and of birth; officers’ tags added rank and substituted date of appointment. The reverse side of Navy tags bore an etched fingerprint of the wearer’s right index finger.

The Navy abandoned its identification tags in peacetime, but revived them in May 1941. These WWII tags listed name, rank or enlisted service number, blood type, tetanus vaccinations and service (USN, USMC for Marines, USNR or USMCR for reserves, USCG for Coast Guard). During the war, soldiers wore two tags so one could be removed “on death or capture.” The second tag omitted the fingerprint but added C, P or H for religion.

In 1959, all branches of the US military adopted the Army-style rectangular tags, minus the “notch.” The new tags dropped tetanus data and replaced the serial number with the Social Security number.

Today, the Army is experimenting with high-tech dog tags, called Individually Carried Records, implanted with microchips that hold most of a soldier’s medical and dental data. The Marines are testing TacMedCS tags with radio-frequency technology and GPS to help locate the wounded.
1863 | Gen. Meade’s Union troops pin on paper ID tags before the battle of Mine’s Run
1870 | Prussian troops issued “Hundemarken”
1906 | US Army issues first dog tags
1916 | Dog tags become mandatory for US soldiers
1917 | Navy issues ID tags
1921 | WWI Unknown Soldier is buried at Arlington National Cemetery
1940 | Dog tags are notched at one end to accommodate engraving machines
1959 | All US military adopt rectangular, rounded-corner dog tags
2012 | Customers who pre-order “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” video game receive dog tags with purchase
Fun Facts

  • Soldiers took to taping metal dog tags together to reduce the clinking sound, which could give away their position. Rubber “silencers” around the rims became standard in the Vietnam War.
  • When the US Army began issuing serial numbers to soldiers, serial No. 1 went to enlisted man Arthur B. Crane of Chicago.
  • Dog tags used by armies around the world resemble those of the US Army because American military contractors have sold the tag-making machines and blanks.
From the July/August 2014 Family Tree Magazine 

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