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.