Historians have traced the origin of dog tags to ancient times. Roman Legionnaires wore a lead emblem bearing their name on a rope they tied around their necks. The Chinese used them in the mid 1800s and the Prussians in the Franco Prussian War in the 1870s. But in America, Civil War soldiers resorted to writing their names on scraps of paper they carried in their pockets or etched their names into the leather on their belts or knapsacks.* Dog tags became widely used by the United States military in the First World and are now iconic symbols of military service. Although they had the practical purpose of identifying a deceased soldier’s remains and as such were everyday reminders of the dangers the soldiers faced, dog tags are a favorite keepsake of many veterans.
Mine, recently acquired for supporting the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, bear only a passing resemblance to the real thing. While they don’t serve to identify me, by name or blood type or religion, they do recognize me as a “charter member” of the museum, and for that I too am proud.
Over the last several years during my interviews with WWII veterans, it was not uncommon for the veteran or their son or daughter to pause the interview for a moment and step away only to return with their dog tags in hand.
Knox Glass has his father Frank Cone’s dog tags. They were somehow preserved and sent to the family after Frank’s death in Camp Cabanatuan, one of the infamous Japanese prison camps and where survivors of the Bataan Death March were sent.
And, one-hundred-and-one year old Eleanor Frye, one of the first class of the US Navy’s WAVES, proudly shares the tags she received 75 years ago when she was commissioned as a Lieutenant (JG).
There is a vein of military service that runs through my family’s core. My grandfather served in World War I, and unfortunately while I have a photo of him, I never asked my grandmother if she kept his dog tags. My father served in WWII. He kept his dog tags (and I am searching high and low for them now). My husband has his from the Vietnam era as I suspect my brother-in-law does. And my nephew has newer, shinier ones from Iraq, tucked away in a box in his garage.
I hope, on this Veterans Day 2019, in remembrance of their service, they all retrieve them and hold the emblems in their hands even if for a moment.
What about you? Do you have your dog tags or those of a veteran in your family? If so, please send me a photo to share. Don’t forget to thank a veteran today on Veterans Day 2019, and tomorrow and the day after.
* from The History of Dog Tags. warhistoryonline.com