Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Dog tags used to have notches so they could be wedged between the teeth of fallen soldiers.
Origins: When the Grim Reaper claims another victim in the relative tranquility of the civilian world, after the body is whisked away to the morgue it is marked for identification with a simple token: a paper tag attached to a toe of the deceased. In the more turbulent world of the military, however, a hardier ID token is necessary. This token needs to be something that is carried on a soldier's person at all times, because the violence of combat can often leave remains difficult to identify, and it needs to be sturdy, because bodies may have to be moved a long ways under rough and adverse conditions before being attended to by mortuary personnel. Under these conditions a paper tag is too fragile
Formerly called "Graves Registration," the military's
It is to Mortuary Affairs we therefore turn for the answer to why the older style of dog tags (i.e., tags manufactured between 1941 and the early 1970s) worn by those serving in the
According to Mortuary Affairs:
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 the blank in place, hence, today's tags are smooth on all sides.When measured against the gripping mental image of lion-hearted soldiers setting aside their personal grief to kick shut the jaws of fallen comrades, proper alignment on a stamping machine just doesn't present itself as much of a story. This lack of romance is perhaps some of the reason for the popularity of grisly rumors about the purpose for the notch — what reality fails to supply, rumor agreeably contributes. More than thirty years since the cleft was last a part of these tags, mail from our readers confirms the story is very much in circulation. Indeed, some have heard unusual variations on the theme:
[Collected via e-mail, 2003]While it is true decomposing bodies do bloat from gases that build up therein, propping open mouths of corpses to vent them wouldn't have much effect since these gases are present throughout the body, not just in the digestive system and lungs. (These vapors eventually escape as the tissue containing them breaks down, allowing them to leak from the body.)
My dog tags in WWII had a notch in them. The story was that this was to hold a dead soldiers mouth open to allow gases to escape until the body was attended to.
Sometimes variations encountered by our readers served to add to the basic rumor, as in this telling:
[Collected via e-mail, 2003]The chain upon which dog tags are hung wasn't always beaded. At one time olive drab cord or cloth tape was the norm, and woven nylon, wire, and cloth cords still show up as alternatives to the now ubiquitous string of metal beads. Even the original metal chain issued in 1943 had flat links, not the rounded beads of the rosary explanation. The smaller loop of chain was there to keep the tags separated from each other so their clinking didn't alert unfriendlies to the presence of
I was dating a guy in the military who told me this story about dog tags. He said that if a soldier was killed in the field, his surviving comrade was to take one of the dog tags, break it in half, and close the dead soldier's jaw firmly over one of the halves it to keep it in place for identification purposes in case the body was found. He also said that the ball chain that holds the tags is comprised of
Barbara "chain ganged" Mikkelson
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