The Depot

Why Are There Two Dog Tags?

If there is one issued piece of equipment given to military personnel that is swirling with urban legend and myths, it is dog tags.

The origins of the dog tag are unknown. Some military historians believe the practice started with the Roman Empire. Like most good military ideas, it is not surprising the Romans would be given credit for developing the dog tag.

Other researchers believe the practice of tagging military personnel started to take shape during the Civil War when soldiers wrote notes with their personal information on them so they could be identified if they became a casualty.

The U.S. Defense Department supports the argument that dog tags, officially known as identification tags, came about during the Civil War because soldiers were afraid of being unidentified and buried in unmarked graves. Soldiers marked their clothing, pinned tags of paper and cloth onto their uniforms, used old coins or bits of metals to identify themselves, and some men carved their names into wood pieces strung around their necks. 

Their concerns were legitimate. By the end of the Civil War, more than 40 percent of the Union Army’s dead were unidentified. For example, of the more than 17,000 troops buried in Vicksburg National Cemetery, nearly 13,000 graves are marked as unknown.

After the Civil War, the U.S. military embraced better practices of casualty identification. At the end of the Spanish American War, service members were issued identification tags in 1899 after U.S. Army Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, an officer in charge of morgue operations in the Philippines, recommended the Army outfit all soldiers with the disks to identify those who were injured or killed. 

The U.S. Army started to issue the tags in 1906. The tags included personal biographical information that could be used to identify a casualty. The half-dollar size tags were stamped with a soldier's name, rank, company and regiment or corps, and they were attached to a cord or chain that went around the neck. The tags were worn under the field uniform. 

According to the Defense Department, in July 1916, the U.S. Army amended its initial order and required a second disc. Why two dog tags? The first tag was to remain with the body, while the second was for burial service record keeping. Like all things military, it is likely the military figured out the need for two dog tags amidst operations. Remember, Donald Rumsfeld’s famous words: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

The U.S. Navy didn't require dog tags until May 1917. By then, all U.S. combat troops were required to wear them. Toward the end of World War I, American Expeditionary Forces in Europe added religious symbols to the tags. 

During the Korean War, the answer to the question why two dog tags got a new answer. One of the tags was put on a much shorter chain and attached to the main chain. However, it was never placed in the mouth of a deceased soldier as military folklore suggests. Instead, the tag on the shorter chain was used as a toe tag when a soldier was killed and his body was being processed. At the end of the 1950s, after the Korean War, procedures changed to keep both dog tags with the service member if they died.

In Vietnam, combat troops started to lace their second tag in their boots. So, the answer to the question, why two dog tags, was for the most part, the same reasoning for issuing two dog tags in Korea. One stayed with the body, the other was used as a toe tag.

Regulations have vacillated regarding how the two tags should be used. Many still ask, why two dog tags? And should the tags stay together or be separated?

Today, service personnel are issued two dog tags on a long and short chain, but given the advances made in DNA forensics and in utilizing medical profiles and information to identify the fallen, the role of the dog tag is still important, but only a piece of the process of identifying our nation’s war casualties.

Why two dog tags? Because as a nation we need to ensure that those who fight for our country get the recognition they deserve. They are entitled to be known to us and the world and if two tags help, then we owe them that.

The History and Mysteries Behind Dog Tags

 

One of the most gruesome rumors to ever circulate throughout the military ranks is still alive today. Ask some of the older men and women in uniform about dog tags, and specifically, notched dog tags and you will get horrid tales of about how war dead are treated. Fortunately, the tales are untrue and U.S. casualties are treated with respect and dignity.

In the 1940s and for about 30 years, U.S. military dog tags, the M-1940 dog tag to be exact, had this noticeable notch in it along the edge. Soldiers tell stories, as soldiers do, so when people started asking, why were dog tags notched, military personnel began to tell tales of how when a soldier died on the battlefield, medics would take the notched part of the dog tag and place it between the teeth of the deceased soldier. The medic or mortuary affairs member would then nudge or kick the jaw so the tag could become lodged between the soldier’s teeth. Why was it necessary for it to stay lodged between their teeth?

For starters, transporting a dead soldier across a battlefield in the 1940s was an arduous task and there were plenty of opportunities where a soldier’s identity could be lost. If a tag was secured between the teeth, this aided the identification process, despite how uncivil the act might be. Why were dog tags notched? Hint, it wasn’t because of the challenges the U.S. military faced in removing the dead off the battlefield in the 1940s.

Another reason for notched dog tags was popular for many years and has since subsided. The tale went that once a soldier was taken off the battlefield, their bodies would produce gases. In order to allow the gases to escape the dead body, a dog tag was placed in the mouth, between the teeth, to keep the body’s mouth open to allow the gases to escape. This was another reason offered when people asked why were dog tags notched?

The truth is, neither of those two stories are true. They make for dramatic anecdotes and war stories, but they are completely false. It is true that dead bodies bloat from gas buildup, but venting them with an open mouth would have no impact on the bodies since gases do not pass through the mouth and are present throughout the body.

Why were dog tags notched? The truth is far less compelling.

The notched dog tags used until 1970 were part of a casualty identification process that included a tag that was created using a machine that allowed the tag-making apparatus to hold the blank tag while it was stamped with the soldier’s personal information. In other words, the tag was there to help the machine hold the dog tag in place as it was stamped. Current dog tags are manufactured by machines that do not need the notch to hold the tags in place.

But there is more to answer the question, why were dog tags notched? If a soldier was a casualty, the dog tag was removed from his body and it was placed into a handheld, gun-like tool called the Addressograph Model 70. This device would transfer the soldier’s information from his dog tags to his medical records. The importance of the notch, again, was to hold the dog tag in place in the Addressograph which was a medical imprinter.

Known as the “locating notch” in military manuals, the notch helped medical personnel properly seat the dog tag into the imprinter. The Model 70 allowed medical or mortuary affairs personnel to transfer a soldier’s personal information on the dog tag and imprint it directly onto medical documents. They would squeeze the handle of the unit and it would imprint dog tag information onto a document like an old typewriter ribbon.

So if you hear someone telling tall tales about dog tags and why they were notched, remember, you know the real answer to the question, why were dog tags notched?

Given the advances in DNA technology, along with advances in record management by the U.S. military, today dog tags aren’t a necessity for the identification of casualties. The identification of remains is a forensic process, reliant on more than just dog tags.