Carrying identification into battle isn't something new, but that doesn't mean Americans haven't put our own unique spin on it.
Ancient Spartan warriors each designed their own shields so that if they fell in battle, the shield could be retrieved and given to family, which sounds really touching, except imagine having to create a shield from scratch? Sounds like a lot of work that no one has time to do.
Then, the Roman Legionnaires started wearing thin lead disks in pouches around their necks called signalculum. These discs are the first recorded history of what we now know as a dog tag. The disc included the name of the Legionnaire and the legion to which he was a part.
More recently, identification tags were issued to members of the Chinese military in the middle 19th century. These tags were wooden, worn at the belt, and included the servicemember's age, birthplace, unit, and enlistment date.
A look back at the history of dog tags
During the Civil War, some soldiers pinned identification information onto their uniforms with their names and home addresses. Others wrote identifying info on their rucksacks or scratched it into their belt buckles. Seeing a demand for battlefield identification tags, manufacturers began advertising and marketing to soldiers and service members' families. These identification tags were often pins in the shape of a branch of service and were engraved with the service member's name and unit. Machine stamped tags were made from brass or lead and usually had an eagle or a shield on one side, with a list of battles on the other side. However, these tags had to be purchased by the service member or their family, which meant that not everyone had them.
It wasn't until the early 1900s that tags became a standard part of the American military uniform. In 1906, General Order No. 204 was issued from the War Department, which mandated an aluminum tag be worn at all times. GO 204 stated that the tag could be worn around the neck, underneath clothing, by a cord or throng passed through a small hole in the tab and detailed the tag's place as part of the standard-issue military uniform. Tags were issued for free to enlisted personnel and at a cost to officers.
By 1916, the Army changed the regulation to include the issuance of two tags – one to stay with a service member and one that would be sent to the person in charge of record keeping. Two years later, the Army adopted the service member system, which we know today as the DoD ID. That didn't last too long, though. Today's tags have social security numbers on them instead of DoD identification numbers.
In WWII, the circular discs were replaced with the oval shape still in use today. And that's where most historians think that the tags got their moniker since the tag looks like a dog collar tag.
What’s on the tag?
Over the years, the information stamped on the tag has changed, and each branch of the military puts different information on them, even now. What's remained consistent is the name of the service member, religion, and blood type.
During WWII, there were only three religious options a service member could choose – P for Protestant, C for Catholic and H for Hebrew (Jewish). Now, current options are also basically endless, ranging from NRP (No Religious Preference) to D for Druid. There's no list of approved/official religions.
Marine Corps dog tags also include the size of the gas mask that the Marine wears. Current tags still utilize the historic two-tag system, with one long chain that can be worn around the neck and a tag interlinked with a smaller chain. The dog tags we know today are largely unchanged since the Vietnam War, but there are some talks in place about changing the information shown on a tag, including adding additional tags for soldier data, medical information, and carry records.
New dog tags are expected to contain microchip technology that will also hold a service member's medical and dental records. That's a far cry from the ancient Spartan shields, for sure.