The Nameless Dead: A Brief History of Dog Tags in the US Military

April 26, 2022Matt Fratus
dog tags

Dog tags hang from the Iraq/Afghanistan Dog Tag Memorial at the Museum of the Forgotten Warrior outside of Beale Air Force Base, California, Nov. 10, 2011. The memorial was built to honor all of the men and women who had been killed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as of Oct. 30, 2011. It includes 6,296 individual dog tags. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fowler/US Air Force.

During the Civil War, American service members worried how their bodies would be properly identified if they were killed in action: a fair concern, considering more than 40% of the Civil War dead remain unidentified.

To ease their minds, some soldiers tattooed their epitaphs on their bodies, while others made personalized dog tags out of paper or stitched them onto clothing. These identification symbols were also fashioned into coins or carved into wood chunks and hung around their necks. It was their way to assist the living when no official process was in place.

civil war dead
Federal dead at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863. Wikimedia Commons photo by Henry W. Elson.

The unofficial practice took some time to gain traction and, although the identification method is popularly known as “dog tags” these days, the term wasn’t coined until at least 1936. The nickname stems from a matter that doesn’t even involve the military. William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper magnate and yellow journalism pioneer, published an article in an attempt to undermine support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Hearst heard about a proposal for the newly formed Social Security Administration to give out nameplates for personal identification — adding all workers would receive treatment as if they were dogs, and private information would no longer be confidential. He called these identification plates “dog tags.”

“This news was widespread and easily caught on,” said Ginger Cucolo during a presentation called “Dog Tags: History, Stories & Folklore of Military Identification” at the Library of Congress. “We believe that that is where dog tags and the label did stick.”

Civil War dog tags
Civil War dog tag, left, of Cpl. Alvin B. Williams, right, of Company F, 11th Regiment New Hampshire Volunteers, with musket and a bayonet in scabbard. Williams was killed in action in 1864 near Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

US service members continued the tradition following the American Civil War. In 1899, at the end of the Spanish-American War, the first request to field service members with ID tags came by an Army chaplain in the Philippines. Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who was in charge of the Army Morgue and Office of Identification, recommended soldiers wear circular disks to identify those injured or killed in battle. 

In 1906, the Army issued a general order requiring aluminum disc-shaped ID tags to be worn under soldiers’ field uniforms. These ID tags were stamped with a soldier’s name, rank, company, and regiment and were attached to either a string or chain.

Dog Tags
Seaman Apprentice Anthony Manning, a hospital corpsman with 7th Communication Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force, relocates dog tags from the US Marine Corps monument Sept. 9, 2009, on Iwo Jima. US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Monty Burton.

“It was during World War I that the thought of burying the soldiers where they fell became important to many family members even if on foreign soil,” Cucolo said. “When Teddy Roosevelt’s son lieutenant Quentin [Roosevelt] was killed, he requested that, ‘where the tree falls, let it lie.’ 30,000 Americans from this war are buried in one of eight cemeteries in Europe while 47,000 were returned to the United States.”

The ID tags became mandatory in 1917 amid World War I for all US combat troops. Individual service branches had their own versions.

In 2018, a preservation technician at the National Archives in St. Louis was working on a World War II record when she found something taped to the lower corner. Using a Holbein spatula to prevent the tape from damaging the document, the technician removed the mystery object: a round dog tag. This dog tag belonged to Nelson Apple, a master sergeant in the Coast Artillery Corps. He served in the Philippines during WWII and was captured in early 1942 and sent to the Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp, where he died from malaria. The identification tag was found by a local Filipino a few years after the soldier’s death and was sent to the US War Department and filed with Apple’s record, which ultimately made its way to the National Archives in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of the National Archives/Instagram.

“These first tags were oval, of Monel metal (a patented corrosion-resistant alloy of nickel and copper, with small amounts of iron and manganese), 1.25 inches wide and 1.5 inches long,” states a Naval History and Heritage Command article about the Navy’s version of dog tags. “Perforated at one end, a single tag was to be worn around the neck on Monel wire ‘encased in a cotton sleeve.’”

One side of the tag had an etched fingerprint of the right index finger, and the other side had “U.S.N.” and the sailor’s personal information.

dog tags
Hull Maintenance Technician 1st Class Vincent Savage places a fallen sailor’s dog tag, one of more than 200 dog tags, on a memorial dedicated to service members service members who lost their lives while serving in the Middle East. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Diana Quinlan.

However, after World War I, the US Navy discontinued wearing dog tags. According to a 1925 Navy personnel manual, identification tags were only issued “in time of war or other emergency, or when directed by competent authority, individual identification tags shall be prepared and worn by all persons in the naval service.”

In World War II, the tradition picked back up, and each dog tag was mechanically stamped with name, rank, service number, blood type, and religion.

dog tags vietnam
Replica dog tags for Medal of Honor recipient and OV-10 pilot Capt. Steven L. Bennett rest on a workstation at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Aug. 29, 2019. Bennett received the Medal of Honor for heroic actions performed while flying an artillery adjustment mission in Vietnam in June of 1972. Newly printed dog tags were presented to Bennett’s daughter, Angela Bennett-Engele, after the original dog tags went missing. Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Lynette M. Rolen.

“By 1969, the Army began to transition from serial numbers to Social Security numbers,” Katie Lange of the Department of Defense writes. “That lasted about 45 years until 2015, when the Army began removing Social Security numbers from the tags and replacing them with each soldier’s Defense Department identification number.

“The move safeguarded soldiers’ personally identifiable information and helped protect against identity theft.”

While DNA analysis can identify anonymous remains, dog tags are still standard issue for US service members today. In an effort to honor the legacy of those killed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Museum of the Forgotten Warrior outside of Beale Air Force Base in California has an outdoor exhibit featuring thousands of individual dog tags. The Iraq/Afghanistan Dog Tag Memorial, as of 2011, contains 6,296 individual dog tags.

Read Next: The Civil War Roots of the US Military’s Tattoo Culture

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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