A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of army dog tags?

July 12, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

Could you please tell me (or find out) about Army-issued dog tags? When , where, and how did they come about? This a very serious question and needs immediate attention. If not answered soon, two people that I know may kill each other. I would appreciate any response.

Straight Dope Science Advisory Board will go to any length to settle a bar bet, Sally.

In this case, we went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and museum specialist Margaret Vining in the Armed Forces Collections Division.

In the early days, the U.S. Army recorded the measurements and distinctive facial features of soldiers--but only for the purposes of apprehending deserters, cutting undesirable recruits and settling accounts upon discharge.

Soldiers who wanted their loved ones to know of their fate could only improvise their own identification. As early as the Spanish-American War, soldiers were purchasing crude stamped period identification tags. During the Civil War of 1861-1865, some soldiers going into combat pinned slips of paper with their name and home address to the backs of their coats. Notes, diaries and letters helped with identification. Some soldiers stencilled identification on their knapsacks or scratched it in the soft lead backing of the Army belt buckle. Some purchased items sold by "private concerns."

These private concerns (read: folks out to make a buck) advertised in such popular periodicals as Harper's Weekly and Leslie's. 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. Their machine-stamped tags were made of brass or lead with a hole and usually had (on one side) an eagle or shield 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 the president, one presumes), 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.

So far as can be determined, the U.S. Army first authorized identification tags 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 the Great War (World War I for you kids) that the Army changed 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. (Sidenote: 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.

Hope your friends didn't have to find out the hard way why that little notch is on the end of the tag.

We prefer a more peaceful ending to bar bets. Make mine a Blanton's.

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