In Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, a mother clutched her son’s dog tags as rifles were fired and “Taps” mournfully echoed across the hallowed grounds.
The feeling of the chain against her skin brought her comfort, she said. The tags had once hung beneath her son’s shirt, and over his heart, and the mother said when she holds them now, she feels close to him.
Another mom, Karen Meredith, wrote about her son, Ken Ballard, who was killed in Najaf, Iraq, on May 30, 2004. “When my son’s body was returned to me, they gave me what he had in his possession; his belt-buckle, his spurs (Cavalry), and his dog tags, which I immediately put on. I have not removed them for anything; not for airport security, not for a mammogram. They stay close to my heart where my son will always be.”
These small pieces of metal hanging from the neck of every service member are intended to help identify remains of the fallen and have been a uniform requirement since World War I. Science has come a long way since then and some future identification system might render them obsolete, but the name, image and personal connection many feel to their tags go beyond their simple, primary purpose.
At the American Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, before Union troops made a frontal assault on Confederate trenches, they wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. They did not want to be forgotten.
During the Spanish American War, Chaplain Charles E. Pierce believed the identity of war dead should be practiced on a more scientific basis. He suggested a central collection agency where mortuary records would be gathered, and the addition of an “Identity Disk” in every Soldier’s combat field kit. The birth of that idea in 1899 is considered the first institutionalized version of an ID tag.
U.S. troops were issued ID tags en masse in 1908 and they have been a required part of the uniform ever since.
The nickname for the ID tag was first coined by William Randolph Hearst who printed unfavorable stories about the New Deal and President Roosevelt in 1936. Having heard the Social Security Administration was considering the use of a nameplate for personal identification, Hearst called it a “Dog Tag.”
The tangible tags connect one personally to an otherwise large and anonymous world, and they are the center of countless stories – like the one about Joe Beyrle, a paratrooper captured by the Nazis. A German soldier took Beyrle’s dog tags and put them around his own neck. While also wearing an American uniform at a later date, the German soldier was killed. A telegram was sent to Beyrle’s family in the states telling them he was dead.
In January 1945, Beyrle escaped and joined a Russian unit, fighting alongside them as a machine gunner for at least a month. After he was wounded by German bombers, he was taken to a hospital, and eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hoping to return home. Embassy officials at first, though, did not believe the fighter was Beyrle. It was not until fingerprints proved his identity that he finally was able to return home in September 1946.
Tanna Toney-Ferris was walking her dog on a beach in Southern California when her eyes spotted a strangely shaped rock. She bent down to pick it up and realized there was a military ID tag embedded in it.
“It seemed to be attached to a key ring, as there were a few other items embedded in the rock also – a key, fingernail clippers and a small screwdriver. Much to my amazement, I could make out a name, ID number, branch of service and the religion,” Tanna recalled. “My first thought was this Sailor had perished at sea, and I held his last farewell to this world in my hand. All I could think of was how much I wanted to return this brave Sailor’s dog tags to his family, and I wasn't sure how to go about doing that. So, for the next three years, they sat on a shelf with other treasures I had found on our many walks along the beach.”
Tanna finally found the 62-year-old veteran living in Wisconsin. Having served in the Navy on the USS Pledge, he had lost his first set of tags more than 30 years prior. After numerous e-mails and phone calls, they met in person and Tanna was able to hand him his property.
General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, wrote General Order 11 on May 5, 1868, for the observance of Memorial Day. He wanted American citizens to sustain the fraternal feelings for those who died for their country, and for us to guard their gravesites as “a fitting tribute to the nation’s slain defenders.”
As much as Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, the dog tag is a daily reminder that in the professions of arms, to be forgotten is the cruelest fate. The ID tag is more than 100 years old, and this little piece of metal connects us to those slain defenders. To each it might mean something different, but to the millions of service members, past and present who were required to wear one, the dog tag is a symbol of service and professional pride. Most importantly, though, it is a reminder of the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice. We shall not forget.
– Traveller archive; original article written by military spouse Ginger Cucolo