JOHN KELLY’S WASH­ING­TON

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly

Amid the atomic scare of the 1950s, D.C. res­i­dents were urged to buy dog tags — that eas­ily melted.

In July of 1952, a cu­ri­ous ex­per­i­ment took place in the ma­chine shop of The Wash­ing­ton Post. The flame from an acety­lene torch was ap­plied to a civil de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tag, a piece of metal roughly the size of a busi­ness card.

City lead­ers had ap­proved the tags the pre­vi­ous Novem­ber, and plans were in place for cit­i­zens to pro­cure them on a vol­un­tary ba­sis. Tags would be em­bossed with the per­son’s name, ad­dress and, if known, blood type. They would also in­clude a unique fam­ily se­rial num­ber. Regis­tra­tion files would con­tain this in­for­ma­tion along with ad­di­tional de­tails.

Ac­cord­ing to the District’s civil de­fense chief, the use of the tags and coded files would en­able fam­i­lies to be re­united “in the con­fu­sion fol­low­ing a dis­as­ter.”

Of course, the “dis­as­ter” that was on ev­ery­one’s mind wasn’t a tor­nado or an earth­quake. It was more nu­clear in na­ture. As a full­page ad in The Post an­nounc­ing Civil De­fense Week put it: “Shut­ting your eyes to the fact that Rus­sia has the A-bomb — and the means to de­liver it — is gam­bling with your life. Noth­ing makes bet­ter A-bomb prey than a city that’s un­pre­pared.”

If ev­ery­one did his or her part, Wash­ing­ton would be pre­pared. That in­cluded sign­ing up for the dog tags, which cost 50 cents each.

Which brings us to The Post’s ma­chine shop. When the flame was ap­plied to one of D.C.’s ID tags, it al­most im­me­di­ately be­gan to melt. Tags from other cities with­stood the heat longer.

It turned out that the District’s tag was made of mal­leable brass, not steel. The head­line over The Post’s July 13, 1952, story read: “Civil De­fense Dog Tags Here Ques­tioned on Cost, Qual­ity.”

The tags ob­vi­ously wouldn’t with­stand the hell­fire of a nu­clear at­tack. Just as galling was this: Wash­ing­ton’s were the most ex­pen­sive in the coun­try. The board of ed­u­ca­tion in New York City had paid ap­prox­i­mately 10 cents each for the tags it or­dered for its 850,000 pupils. The price for a tag in Cleve­land was also a dime. Tags in New Or­leans cost 15 cents each. In­di­anapo­lis was charg­ing cit­i­zens 25 cents.

D.C. civil de­fense of­fi­cials ar­gued that the higher price re­flected the fact that Wash­ing­ton’s pro­gram was more than just dog tags. The dog tags were part of a com­plex sys­tem called the McBee KeySort sys­tem that was ca­pa­ble of sort­ing 100 cards a minute.

United Equip­ment Co., the con­trac­tor that man­u­fac­tured the tags, said steel had not been avail­able when tag pro­duc­tion be­gan and only the first batch — es­ti­mates ranged from 4,000 to 20,000 — was made of brass. The re­main­der were be­ing made of more durable steel.

But as Post re­porter Ge­orge T. Draper dug deeper, he found other cu­riosi­ties. Frank E. Arm­strong, chief of the dis­as­ter in­for­ma­tion of­fice in D.C.’s civil de­fense head­quar­ters, was a salaried em­ployee of United Equip­ment Co. Fur­ther­more, United Equip­ment Co. was work­ing out of a free of­fice in the District Build­ing.

The of­fice, in Room 22, had pre­vi­ously been used by a group of vol­un­teers who an­swered civil de­fense queries. But they were kicked out and re­placed by “the dog-tag peo­ple.”

Not only was United Equip­ment Co. re­ceiv­ing of­fice space gratis, it had two tele­phones at its dis­posal and free trans­porta­tion around town for the “pretty sales­women” charged with sell­ing the tags.

A Post ed­i­to­rial weighed in: “Some very odd cir­cum­stances sur­round the sale of civil de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tags to res­i­dents of Wash­ing­ton.”

John E. Fon­dahl, chief of civil de­fense, de­manded an ac­count­ing, but it was slow in com­ing. Two months later, a com­mit­tee was or­ga­nized to over­see the pro­gram. United Equip­ment Co. was or­dered to pro­vide tags for a slid­ing scale. The city would pay 48.8 cents per tag for monthly or­ders be­low 10,000, drop­ping to 29.9 cents per tag if more than 50,000 were sold.

An­swer Man re­mains skep­ti­cal. Though the District would be pay­ing less, cit­i­zens still had to pay 50 cents per tag.

Would the tags and the McBee KeySort sys­tem have helped re­unite fam­i­lies — or iden­tify re­mains — af­ter a nu­clear at­tack? Well, con­sider this: In 1958, Lan­g­ley Park, Md., dropped plans to is­sue dog tags to ele­men­tary school stu­dents. Some­one re­al­ized that kids love to swap things, so if the tags were mixed up, a po­ten­tially fa­tal re­ac­tion to the wrong blood type could oc­cur.

That wouldn’t have been a prob­lem with an idea that as­sis­tant de­fense sec­re­tary Frank B. Berry pro­posed in 1955: that Amer­i­cans be tat­tooed on the waist or un­der the arm with their blood types in case of nu­clear at­tack.

Tat­too artists be­came ex­cited at the pos­si­ble in­crease in busi­ness. “Maybe we could en­close the blood type in a few flow­ers,” one D.C. tat­too artist told a re­porter.

The idea was shot down by John M. Whit­ney, health of­fi­cer of the Civil De­fense Ad­min­is­tra­tion, who said, “In an emer­gency, we would just use O-type blood, which is uni­ver­sally ac­cept­able, and check up on blood types later.”

FAM­ILY PHO­TOS

Above is the civil de­fense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tag, which had a per­son­al­ized fam­ily se­rial num­ber, that Mil­lie Hurl­but (born Mil­lie Hud­nall) was given when she was in ele­men­tary school in the District in the early 1950s. At left, a photo of Hurl­but as a child.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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