The Depot

Military Dog Tags: A Brief History and Overview

Civil war era coin used as dog tag

The American military, like American culture, has plenty of tall tales, myths and legends. Americans, especially American soldiers, can spin a yarn like nobody else. It makes the military culture, and the people in it, more colorful and robust.

So, it should come as no surprise that dog tags have a bit of mystery swirling around them in some mythical orbit. Much of it is untrue, like the reason why dog tags used to be notched, but to help remove some of the misinformation out there about dog tags, maybe it is best to cover a bit of military dog tags history.

According to the Army, the term "dog tag" was first coined by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1936 when Hearst heard of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to issue cards for personal identification to help manage the newly formed Social Security Administration. Hearst tagged them, no pun intended, "dog tags."

Then of course there is the military dog tags history that military personnel know. Many believe that the term dog tag was a nickname that World War II military draftees called them because the draftees joked that they were treated like dogs. Another military rumor in military dog tags history is that they looked like tags on a dog’s collar. But while the term “dog tag” seems to have caught on around World War II, the concept of identifying soldiers originated long before World War II.

During the Civil War, some battles had casualties numbering in the thousands and soldiers became afraid that they would not be identified if they were killed in action. They wanted to be properly identified and buried in a marked grave if they died, so naturally, military ingenuity kicked in and soldiers devised ways to be identified if they were killed.

Some soldiers stitched their names into their uniforms while others pinned pieces of paper to themselves. Many more used coins or other bits of metals and some men carved their names into chunks of wood strung around their necks. Soldiers with financial resources purchased engraved metals tags from vendors who followed the armies during the war.

When the Civil War ended, more than 40 percent of the Union Army’s dead were unidentified, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The soldiers’ concerns were validated and the use of dog tags on the battlefield took root in the long military dog tags history.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the first official request to issue service members with dog tags was in 1899 at the end of the Spanish-American war. U.S. Army Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who was in charge of the Army Morgue and Office of Identification in the Philippines, recommended that all soldiers be issued circular disks to identify those who were severely injured or killed in action. 

By 1906, the Army required that dog tags be worn by soldiers and thus the Army ushered in a new chapter in military dog tags history. The dog tags were stamped with a soldier's name, rank, company and regiment or corps. The tags were worn around the neck with the field uniform, secured by a chain or cord.

Ten years later, the original dog tag order was modified and a second identical disc was required to be worn. The first dog tag would remain with the body of the fallen soldier, while the second was for burial service record keeping.

In 1917, when the U.S. Navy required all their sailors wear dog tags, the War Department finally mandated that all American combat troops have dog tags. The tags included the service member’s serial number and religious denomination to help with the disposition of remains. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps all had their own variety of dog tags, but the service branches were now a part of military dog tags history.

During World War II, the military dog tags history did not change much. Dog tags became part of the uniform and they evolved into the size and shape they are today. The dog tags from the World War II era were engraved with the name, rank, service number, blood type and religious preference. The name and address of next of kin was also included, as well as immunization information, but that information eventually was removed from dog tags after the war. 

As previously mentioned in this post, at one point in military dog tags history, dog tags had notches on them. Despite the untrue reasoning for this notch covered in a previous Depot Blog post, the notches existed because of the type of machine used to create them and by the 1970s, those machines became obsolete and the notched dog tags assumed their rightful place in military dog tags history.

Today, dog tags continue to be issued and they are an important part of battlefield identification. Dog tags used to include social security numbers as the military transitioned from serial numbers, and that lasted more than 40 years until 2015 when the services began to remove social security numbers over privacy concerns.

Lastly, advances in DNA technology and science have helped make identification of the fallen more exact and it has made military dog tags history. Nonetheless, dog tags are invaluable and continue to help bring our men and women in uniform home from the battlefield when they fall.

Comments on this post ( 2 )

  • May 24, 2022

    I have what I believe is an early Military dog tag. It is 1 1/2" in diameter brass medallion with a hole on top, the name J. Adams next, the #5 under the name and the year 1883 at the bottom. Would you have any information on something like this?
    Thanks in advance.

    — Byron L. Menke

  • Mar 08, 2022

    Thank you very much for sharing this information. I’m a veteran and have a quesiton about dog tags. In the 70s , who actually produced them? Which company had the contract to physically produce the tags & chains? Thank you.

    — David Schmidt

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