Captain Richard W. Wooley
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin-December 1988
Note: At the time this article was written the term Graves Registration was used for what is now call Mortuary Affairs.
Arlington National Cemetery is not the only resting place for “Unknown Soldiers.” Countless American soldiers have died defending their way of life throughout the history of this nation; many of their graves are marked with a single word, “unknown.”
The Civil War provided the first recorded incident of American soldiers making an effort to ensure that their identities would be known should they die on the battlefield. Their methods were varied, and all were taken on a soldier’s own initiative. In 1863, prior to the battle of Mine’s Run in northern Virginia, General Meade’s troops wrote their names and unit designations on paper tags and pinned them to their clothing. Many soldiers took great care to mark all their personal belongings. Some troops fashioned their own “ID” (identification) tags out of pieces of wood, boring a hole in one end so that they could be worn on a string around the neck.
The commercial sector saw the demand for an identification method and provided products. Harper’s Weekly Magazine advertised “Soldier’s Pins” which could be mail ordered. Made of silver or gold, these pins were inscribed with an individual’s name and unit designation. Private vendors who followed troops also offered ornate identification disks for sale just prior to battles. Still, despite the fact that fear of being listed among the unknowns was a real concern among the rank and file, no reference to an official issue of identification tags by the Federal Government exists. (42% of the Civil War dead remain unidentified.)
The first official advocacy of issuing identification tags took place in 1899. Chaplain Charles C. Pierce, who was tasked to establish the Quartermaster Office of Identification in the Philippines, recommended inclusion of an “identity disc” in the combat field kit as the answer to the need for standard identification. The Army Regulations of 1913 made identification tags mandatory, and by 1917, all combat soldiers wore aluminum discs on chains around their necks. By World War II, the circular disc was replaced by the oblong shape familiar to us today, generally referred to as “dog tags.”
Since then, some myths have arisen in connection with the purpose of the identification tags. One of the more common myths involves the reason for the notch on the tag issued between 1941 and the early 1970’s. Battlefield rumor held that the notched end of the tag was placed between the front teeth of battlefield casualties to hold the jaws in place. No official record of American soldiers being issued these instructions exists; the only purpose of “the notch” was to hold the blank tag in place on the embossing machine. The machine used at this time doesn’t require a notch to hold he blank in place, hence, today’s tags are smooth on all sides.
Thee sole purpose of the identification tag is stated by its designation. Tags found around the neck of a casualty, and only those tags found around the neck, stay with the remains at all times tags found any place besides around the neck are made note of in the Record of Personal Effects of Deceased Personnel, and placed in an effects bag. They are not removed unless there is a need to temporarily inter the remains. If there is only one tag present, another is made to match the first. If the remains are unidentified, two tags marked “unidentified” are made. One tag is interred with the individual, the other placed on a wire ring in the sequence of the temporary cemetery plot. This enables Graves Registration personnel to make positive identification of remains during disinterment procedures; when the remains are disinterred, the tag on the wire ring is removed and placed with the matching tag around the neck.
The Department of the Army has developed and is currently testing a new tag, which will hold 80% of a soldier’s medical and dental data on a microchip. Known as the Individually Carried Record, it is not intended to replace the present tag, but rather to augment it as part of the “paperless battlefield” concept. This development is in keeping with the Army’s dedication to positively identify each and every fallen soldier.
The Armed Forces make every possible effort to eradicate discrepancies and remove doubts about casualties, not least those doubts that families may hold concerning the demise of their loved ones. In recent years, a near perfect record of identifying service members who have died in the line of duty has been achieved, a far cry from the 58% rate of identification that stood during the Civil War. The ID tag has, been and remains a major part of the reason for this record. Are you wearing your ID tags today? Too many military personnel, particularly those who are part of the peacetime force stationed in CONUS (Continental United States), forget how vital those tags can be, forget that as soldiers they are always on the line. Wearing your ID tags is one of the easiest actions you can make towards achieving total readiness, so take those tags out of your dresser and put them around your neck. Remember -the simple information contained on that small aluminum tag can speak for you if you can’t speak for yourself; it could mean the difference between a positive identification and an uncertain future for those who survive you, should your identity be “…known only to God.”
At the time this article was written CPT Richard W. Wooley was Chief of Individual Training. Graves Registration Department (now the Mortuary Affairs Center), U.S. Army Quartermaster School, Fort Lee, Virginia.