Identifying The Unknown Soldiers: A History of Dog Tags

by M-Gillies

These dog tags are WWII issue and, include one long chain and one short chain which reduces noise and also provides a better system of identification of a fallen soldier.

It was during the American Civil War of 1861-1865 that the realities of war had begun gripping the world in more ways then one. With conscription leading to a militia draft, further spearheading the great draft riot of New York in 1863 to the rising death toll of soldiers, the realities of death grew more prominent. It was during this period that record keeping was sporadic under wartime conditions and saw many grave locations being lost, leading to a large number of unknown soldiers left on the battlefield.

Taking the initiative into their own hands, soldiers had begun taking a variety of methods to ensure their identities would be known should they have died on the battlefields. For many, it wasn’t rare for soldiers going into combat to improvise their own form of ensuring their remains could be identified. From pinning slips of paper with names and home addresses to the backs of their coats, stencilling identification on their knapsacks or scratching it in the soft lead backing of their Army belt buckle.

However, these alternative methods of identifying one’s body, though effective to a degree, couldn’t account for the 300,000 unknown Union soldiers who had been buried in the South. With 75% of the Civil War dead listed as unidentified in the Vicksburg National Cemetery and 99% of the Federal soldiers interred in the Salisbury National Cemetery listed as unknown, manufacturers of identification badges soon recognized an untapped market in the form of brass and lead machine-stamped tags bearing the name and unit for future recruitments.

Even Harper’s Weekly Magazine advertised mail-ordered “Soldier’s Pins” made of silver and gold, which would be inscribed with a soldier’s name and unit designation. Additionally, private vendors offered ornate identification disks for sale to troops prior to battles.

While not widely accepted at the time, even after the fear of being listed among the unknowns became a growing concern amongst many, no such reference to an official issue of identification tags had been put forth by the Federal Government.

Meanwhile, it was during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that saw the Prussian Army issue such tags to its troops as part of its military attire, and because of their appearance resembeling the tags found on dog collars, were given the name “Hundemarken” (German equivalent of Dog Tags).

At the behest of Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, the first official advocacy of issuing identification tags took place in 1899. Tasked with establishing the Quartermaster Office of Identification in the Philippines, Pierce outlined a series of principles and techniques needed when taking care of the war dead, particularly his recommendation of “Identity Discs” in the combat field kit. Furthermore, Pierce also established central collection agencies where all pertinent mortuary records could be gathered, filed, checked, traced and corrected.

“Positive identification,” he reasoned. “Should admit little doubt and no discrepancies.”

Dog tags used in Canada are designed to be broken in two in the case of fatality; the lower half is returned to National Defence Headquarters with the member’s personal documents, while the upper half remains on the body.

As World War I was shaking the world, new regulations were adopted into the Army’s commitment toward positive identification and proper burial of the dead, with new techniques and procedures being used concerning identification. Using detailed maps and sketches to show the exact locations of all temporary grave sites, this method would prove beneficial for the ease of disinterment at a later date.

By the middle of World War I, a second tag was added to the military-issued accessory in 1916. It was with the addition of a second notched tag that allowed soldiers to remove a tag of a fallen soldier to bring to the Mortuary Affairs Center of the Armed Forces while the second tag remained with the body. Similarly to the French dog tags, the square, aluminum tags issued to the soldiers followed the same format of including a soldier’s identity number, along with rank, regiment and branch of service.

Eventually, the circular discs were replaced with a more rectangular shaped cut tag known as an M1940 tag. These stainless steel tags came with a V-shaped notch on the short side and while there is no definitive explanation for the notch, one popular theory is the notch was placed on the tag in order for soldiers to place the identification marker between the fallen soldier’s teeth. However, recent explanations cite that the notch was used for holding the tag in place as identification information was stamped on the aluminum tag by a manual hand press.

In 1943, as the allies were gaining momentum in the war, the army had begun distributing sets of tags which included one long chain and one short chain. The reason for the two lengths of chains held two reasons, the first reduced the noise in which the dog tags made while in the field of combat, the second reason was so the short chain could be removed from the long chain and placed on the toe of a fallen soldier, often left exposed while the body remained covered.

By 1959 all branches of the US Armed Forces had adopted the use of accessorizing their soldiers with the familiar stainless steel, rectangular shaped dog tags, with the information embossed remaining similar to the original fashion; last and first name, Social Security Number, branch of service, blood type and religious affiliation. Because of this methodology, soldiers wounded during combat were able to receive prompt medical attention or proper identification for burials.

To date, Dog Tags have become standard issued accessories for all military personnel and further include a rubber band edging the tags known as “Silencers” used to further reduce the noise the two tags may make as they hit each other. Meanwhile, the advances of technology have further provided the Mortuary Affairs Center of the Armed Forces with the ability to accurately account for nearly all soldiers in active duty. To further maintain that no soldier be left as unidentified, all soldiers’ DNA has been logged and filed to provide further accurate identification if required. However, soldiers are reminded of the importance in wearing tags, as in the event of a casualty, the tags “speak” for the soldiers.

Read More:

A Short History of Identification Tags | US Army Quartermaster Foundation

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