Dur­ing the Cold War, dog tags for chil­dren seemed to be mostly ev­ery­where

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly

I was a stu­dent at Murch El­e­men­tary School in the early 1950s. In ad­di­tion to the point­less duck-and-cover drills, I have a mem­ory of be­ing is­sued dog tags. I know this was done in other ci­ties. Have I cre­ated a false mem­ory or did this oc­cur in Dis­trict public schools?

— Terry Gans, Long­boat Key, Fla.

Yes, some Dis­trict school­child­ren had dog tags. But were they “is­sued” to stu­dents? Not re­ally.

Be­fore we ex­am­ine the lo­cal prac­tice, let’s scour the na­tion, thanks to An­swer Man’s army of read­ers. Patricia G. Roberts of Great Falls, Va., wrote: “I can con­firm that as a child in New York public schools in the fifties, I was is­sued a dog tag. It con­tained my name, my fa­ther’s name and my ad­dress. In fact I still have it.”

Janet Davis of Fred­er­ick, Md., got one in the early 1950s when she was a stu­dent in Hous­ton. “It’s just like a mil­i­tary tag in size and shape, alu­minum, and stamped with my full name, my mother’s full name, our street ad­dress, city and state, and a let­ter ‘P’ for Protes­tant,” she wrote. “That last was for proper fi­nal rites, I guess, if my re­mains were found un­der my school desk.”

Tags weren’t al­ways metal. John Howell grew up in Sag­i­naw, Mich. He re­ceived a plas­tic dog tag af­ter be­ing blood-typed at around age 9. “I knew very early in my life that I was A +,” he wrote. “My tag was about the size of a gro­cery store loy­alty card. It was color-coded by blood type. Mine was yel­low.”

Doug Bi­etsch got a card­board dog tag in Cham­bers­burg, Pa., in Oc­to­ber of 1962, dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis. It had emer­gency con­tact in­for­ma­tion on it, and he wasn’t al­lowed on the school bus with­out it. As it was made of pa­per, he didn’t think it would sur­vive a nu­clear con­fla­gra­tion.

Emily White re­mem­bers the dog tags that came in the mail when she was a first-grader in Florence, Ala., in 1961. Ear­lier, her par­ents had filled out a form sup­plied by the lo­cal Red Cross chap­ter. “I re­mem­ber my fa­ther open­ing the en­ve­lope and giv­ing out the dog tags to our fam­ily,” wrote Emily, who now lives in Ar­ling­ton, Va. “Each dog tag had the per­son’s name, home ad­dress, date of birth and blood type.”

But what about the Dis­trict? Andy Mour­sund, who now lives in Kens­ing­ton, Md., wrote: “I went through D.C. public schools from 1951 through 1962 — at Ea­ton, Hearst, Deal and Wil­son — and while we had the oc­ca­sional air raid drill dur­ing el­e­men­tary school, we never were is­sued dog tags.”

The Dis­trict’s Lu­cia S. Hatch went to Ea­ton, too, but dur­ing World War II. She had a dog tag that she wore on a chain around her neck. “I also chewed on it, as per­haps you can tell from the photo,” she wrote.

Maryanne Ken­dall went to Murch El­e­men­tary about seven years be­fore our ques­tion-asker. “I do re­mem­ber that we were is­sued dog tags,” wrote Maryanne, now of Re­ston, Va.

While many read­ers say they were “is­sued” dog tags by their school, Peggy Robin, who grew up in At­lanta in the early 1960s, raised a clar­i­fy­ing point. Wrote Peggy, who now lives in the Dis­trict: “As I re­call, it wasn’t a give­away; the of­fer came from a for-profit en­ter­prise that was al­lowed to mar­ket to school­child­ren through in-school hand­outs and ap­pli­ca­tion forms.”

Here’s what hap­pened in the Dis­trict: Dur­ing its April 16, 1952, meet­ing, the school board heard from a city civil de­fense of­fi­cial who rec­om­mended that all Dis­trict cit­i­zens “pro­vide them­selves with a per­ma­nent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tag, ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing the mod­ern meth­ods of at­tack and for the pur­pose of fa­cil­i­tat­ing speedy and ac­cu­rate post-at­tack reg­is­tra­tion; the re­unit­ing of fam­i­lies, and the no­ti­fi­ca­tion of next of kin.”

At its May meet­ing, the board ap­proved the dis­tri­bu­tion of or­der forms. They de­cided to start in el­e­men­tary schools. The tags would be 2 ¾ inches by 1 1/8 inches, em­bossed with the child’s name, ad­dress and an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber unique to each fam­ily. Each tag and chain would cost 50 cents, and its pur­chase would be vol­un­tary.

One school board mem­ber asked: What about fam­i­lies that couldn’t af­ford tags? This was a mat­ter for the PTAs, was the an­swer.

Those “mod­ern meth­ods of at­tack” were on a lot of Amer­i­cans’ minds dur­ing the Cold War. Proof was hang­ing from the necks of some — but not all — Dis­trict stu­dents.

Next week: Wash­ing­ton’s civil de­fense dog tag scan­dal.


When Lu­cia S. Hatch was at D.C.’s Ea­ton El­e­men­tary School, she wore her dog tag, a bit chewed on, on a chain around her neck.

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