Dog Tag History

The History of American Military Dog Tags

United States Army Dog Tag History

From the beginning, the army of the United States used various forms of identification of its soldiers. There was not an official method, nor was it universally used and was just something that was done if a commander had the inclination to record such information. Sometimes measurements of the body or notations of special facial features of soldiers were written down, which really did not provide anything that was very useful.

During the Civil War of 1861-1865, the inability of the army to identify battlefield casualties created the need for some kind of soldier identification method. But Soldiers were resourceful and would resort to writing their names or other information on paper or other items that they might keep on their person during battle. Soldiers have always had the fear that if they fell in battle would their remains be identified? In some cases, and more so in modern times soldiers have used tattoos to be a source of identification of a body.

Prior to the Battle of Mine Run, in northern Virginia that took place in 1863, General George Meade's troops wrote their names and unit designations on paper tags and pinned them to their clothing. At the same time, other soldiers created prototype identification tags out of pieces of wood, perforating one end so that they could be worn on a string around their necks.

Notes, diaries and letters helped with identification. Some soldiers stenciled identification on their knapsacks or scratched it in the soft lead backing of the Army belt buckle. Some purchased items sold by “private concerns” or local entrepreneurs who saw that the business of war could be profitable.

These “private concerns” advertised in such popular periodicals as Harper's Weekly and Leslie's, which were read by the soldiers. Their pins were usually shaped to suggest a branch of service and engraved with the soldier's name and unit. Other entrepreneurs set up shop on the roadside where soldiers would certainly pass by. Their machine-stamped tags were made of brass or lead with a hole and usually had an eagle or shield on one side and such phrases as "War for the Union" or "Liberty, Union, and Equality." The other side had the soldier's name and unit and sometimes a list of battles in which he had participated.

An enterprising man from New York named John Kennedy (no relation to President Kennedy), wrote to the Army in May of 1862, offering to furnish discs for all officers and men in the Federal Army, even enclosing a design for the disc. The National Archives now has the letter along with the reply, a summary refusal without explanation.

Between 1862 and 1913, while the military considered a number of options for identifying soldier remains on the battlefield, individual soldiers continued to utilize makeshift identification methods. Even during the Spanish-American War, soldiers were purchasing crude stamped period identification tags.

The earliest recorded mentioning of the U.S. Army authorizing identification tags is mentioned in War Department General Order No. 204, dated December 20, 1906, which essentially prescribes the Kennedy identification tag: “An aluminum identification tag, the size of a silver half dollar and of suitable thickness, stamped with the name, rank, company, regiment, or corps of the wearer, will be worn by each officer and enlisted man of the Army whenever the field kit is worn, the tag to be suspended from the neck, underneath the clothing, by a cord or thong passed through a small hole in the tab. It is prescribed as a part of the uniform and when not worn as directed herein will be habitually kept in the possession of the owner. The tag will be issued by the Quartermaster's Department gratuitously to enlisted men and at cost price to officers ...”

It wasn't until World War I that the Army issued regulations on July 6, 1916, so that all men were issued two tags: one to stay with the body and the other to go to the person in charge of the burial for record-keeping purposes. In 1918, the Army adopted and allotted the serial number system, and name and serial numbers were ordered stamped on the identification tags of all enlisted men. Serial number 1 was assigned to enlisted man Arthur B. Crean of Chicago in the course of his fifth enlistment period. In July 1969 the Army converted to the Social Security number for personnel identification.

For the American Army it was during World War I, that the American soldier for the first time officially went into combat with an officially sanctioned identification device. Soldiers wore two tags. The idea was when a soldier was killed one of the two tags would be detached from the body to be used for body identification, such as, attached to the feet and left exposed when the body was covered above ground, or nailed to a temporary grave, sign or board. The other tag would always remain with the dead body.

The first dog tags were chained bracelets similar to those worn by French troops in the trenches. The oval disc, surmounted on both ends by chain links, were usually marked with the individuals’ name, rank, regiment, and branch of service. There is a multitude of variants and styles, especially those for officers. The majority of the bracelets were engraved.

Square aluminum I.D. tags were authorized for each man on August 13, 1917. These would contain the same format of the bracelets, however, with an addition of a soldier’s identification number. On February 15, 1918 two I.D. tags were authorized (usually one square and one round stamped with the name, rank, serial number, and unit). On June 10, 1918, two circular aluminum tags (approximately the size of an U.S. half dollar) were authorized. Officers tags to have name, rank, regiment, corps, or department, and “U.S.A.”, and serial number, older tags were to be altered by removing unit designation, etc. After July 26, 1918, all tags could be stamped with letter indicating religion, i.e. “C”, “H”, or “P”. The information on the tags were hand stamped with tool dies. Both the square and round identification tags were suspended from olive drab cord or cloth tape.

These circular aluminum tags were hand stamped, one letter at a time with a metal tool and a hammer. The man making the dog tag had a set of stamps one for each letter and number, contained in a small wooden box that contained a small hammer used for striking the die tool onto the aluminum disk and a small jig with a pin that was used to hold the disk so that the stamper could stamp the letters and numbers. Because these hand stamped dog tags were made one letter at a time no two tags were exactly the same, making each a unique piece. And even the information stamped onto these tags was unique, in as much they were unique to the person doing the stamping. The tags information was more or less left up to that Company or Regiment’s way of stamping the information on the tag. For tags of this era you will find them with many different styles.

As with everything military, soldiers gave a nickname for these “Identification Tags” began to creep into the American soldier’s vocabulary. The resemblance to dog collar tags led to the “dog tag” name and it seemed to catch on throughout the Army.

For the United States Army, in 1940, the circular Aluminum hand stamped WWI era dog tag was replaced by the more oval shape used by the military of today. These new stainless-steel tags are referred to as the M1940 Identification Tag. The oval tags used during World War II were stamped by a machine and had a rectangular shape with round ends and a notch on one side. A common misbelief was that the notch in the new oval tags was put in the tag so that the tag could be placed in a dead soldier’s mouth holding it open to prevent the body from gaseous bloating. However, the real reason for the notch was that the stamping machine required it to hold the tag in place during embossing process. The point of the tag ultimately is for one tag to be left around the neck of a casualty, staying with the remains at all times.

It was during the Vietnam War, that changes were made to the information on dog tags. The dog tags went from the earlier eight digits with their prefix to the current nine-digit Social Security number. You could have both stamped on your tag if you wanted; but, from this point on, the Social Security number was to be the main identifying number. A number of religions were added and full names were spelled out as well. Current dog tags still utilize a two-tag system, with one on a long chain around the neck and one interlinked by a smaller chain. The point of this method is to have one tag that could be removed from the body to be recorded by company personnel and another to remain with the body to be placed on the toe of the deceased for identification of the body.

By 1959, all branches of the armed forces adopted the rectangular tags that are still in use to this day. This tag is virtually the same as the M1940 Identification Tag, however, without the famous “notch.”

During the Vietnam War a special version dog tag was issued to Special Operation Groups operating behind enemy lines. This came out of the January 15, 1967 United States Army, Vietnam (USARV) regulations to blacken all insignia when in the field. The need to keep the two metal tags from rattling together was also a concern. Black rubber silencers were introduced that form fitted around the edges of each tag thereby keeping the two tags from making a metallic sound by rattling against each other. These new softer black silencers replaced the World War Two white hard rubber or plastic silencers. During Desert Storm (1990-91), there were numerous photographs of servicemen from all branches wearing their dog tags with the black rubber silencers. In Afghanistan (2001) and in the Iraq War (2003) nearly all soldiers wore their dog tags with the black rubber silencers.

Though the Army dog tag has remained largely unchanged since the Vietnam War, the Army is currently developing and testing several new dog tags known by various names including the soldier data tag, individually carried record, meditag, and the personal information carrier. The new dog tags will contain microchip or USB technology, which will hold a soldier’s medical and dental records.

This is and example of the typical dog tag stamping kit issued by the Army. The kit would contain a small hammer used to strike the stamp tool; a metal block with a milled circle the size of the dog tag with a locating pin that fit into the hole in the aluminum tag used to hold the aluminum tag while stamping it; individual stamp tools for the letters and numbers, and an example tag. All contained in a wooden case.

Dog Tag Examples

This is an example of the early WWI chained bracelets style identification tag. This tag belongs to PFC Rupert Richardson of the Medical Detachment of the 54th Artillery, CAC. It is typical of this style ID tag and noted on the botton are the words "Angers, France" engraved, which was likely the location PFC Richardson was stationed at.

Above is an example of the first square aluminum hand stamped dot dags. This tag was dug out of the ground near the Romagne-sous-Montfaucon battle field. This is located near the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. It is in poor condition but it is a tag identified as being from the Medical Detachment of the 51st Artillery, CAC. The soldier entire name is not readable and only "Willard H. RaXXXXXX" is visable.

Another square aluminum dog tag from the 51st Artillery, CAC. Above are shown both the sides of the same tag, which belong to Julius J. Ohara of Battery B, 51st Artillery CAC. The left side reads: "51 ART C.A.C. 148147" and the right side reads: "JULIUS J. O HARA PVT B BATY U.S.A."

This shows a set of dog tags with the cloth stringer displayed with the soldiers uniform coat. This is the dog tags and uniform of Pvt. John J. Charles 726859, Battery E, 64th Artillery, CAC

This is a clean example of one dog tag. It has not had anything restamped and is the tag of Adelard T. DeForect PVT Battery D of the 56th Artillery. And this is the reverse of Pvt. Deforest's tag stamped with his Army Service Number.
Some tags had two holes and this is an example of this variant. Also note that just the soldiers name and a service number are stamped. This tag belonged to Pvt. George Paul Frandsen of Battery A, 71st Artillery CAC.

Above is a typical set of both dog tags shown with the cloth stringer anong with a WWI Victory Medal with the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, and Defensive Sector Clasps on the ribbon. This belonged to Pvt. Stephen Laurence Klass of Battery A, 56th Artillery CAC

Another set of both tags and the cloth stringer. This set belonged to Pvt. Frederick Ladelle Michael of Battery C, 3rd Trench Mortar Battalion, CAC

This is an example of a single aluminum dog tag belonging to George N. White. In this example you will note that his former rank of "PVT" or Private had been stamped out and his new rank of "CORPL" or Corporal restamped. Also who ever the person was that origionally stamped this tag was very heavy with the stamping hammer and in all the letters, except the restamped "CORPL" are very deeply stamped and the shoulders of the stamping tool can be seen in many of the letters.

Another example of both tags and the cloth stringer belonging to Pvt. Fred C. Everett of Supply Company, 54th Artillery, CAC. They are stamped with name; rank, unit name, and USA on the fronts and on the reverse sides are the Service Number. This is an example of two sets of dog tags, one set is from WWI and one set from WWII, belonging to the same man, Edwin G. Williams. Below are the round aluminum hand stamped tags from WWI and above are the M1940 machine stamped tags with the notch. Williams served in WWI as a Private and during WWII served as a Major.

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This page was created on January 5, 2019, and last modified on: January 5, 2019

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