The April 2002 issue of Vietnam Magazine carried an article about the 1,444 dog tags that an American tourist had purchased from shops and street vendors in Hue City, Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), in 1994. The tourist — a former Army nurse — hoped that the dog tags might lead to the recovery and identification of some of the then 2,400 (now less than 1,850) American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who had gone missing in Southeast Asia, and she therefore immediately notified the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi and turned the dog tags over to members of the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting (JTF-FA; now superseded by the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, JPAC) and its Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), for verification of their authenticity.
Little did the tourist know that her good Samaritan deed would serve as the catalyst for some of the most in-depth research into dog tags to date. As none of the dog tags that she provided proved to be those of Americans missing in action (MIA) in Southeast Asia, they were turned over to scientists at the CIL to determine whether the tags had actually been worn by Americans who served in Southeast Asia, or whether they were fakes created for sale to unsuspecting tourists. Several years of investigation and analysis followed to determine which of the 1,444 dog tags were real and which were not. The situation was further complicated by numerous stories of rosters of U.S. service members, U.S. dog tag embossing machines and U.S. dog tag blanks left behind when the last troops withdrew in 1975. One of the main reasons for trying to trace dog tags to their origin was the hope that they might lead investigators to American crash and burial sites that had yet to be located.
To get to the bottom of what we called the ‘mystery of the dog tags,’ we needed to address four basic questions. First, were the dog tags issued by the United States or were they faked by Vietnamese citizens for the purpose of making a few dollars? Second, were there any fake dog tags among the 1,444? Third, if these dog tags were genuine, how did they end up in Vietnamese hands? Finally, would Americans want their dog tags back after 30 years and, if so, how could we know and how would we locate them so many years after the war? For whatever reason, these relics of war had been left behind, and we wanted to know how and why. We undertook this project with no preconceived notions, not knowing what we would find or learn. We would instead let the evidence speak for itself.
One area of confusion concerning the authenticity of dog tags is the difference between dog tags and dog tag rubbings (or as the Vietnamese call them, ‘paper dog tags’). Some investigators have mistakenly lumped these all into the same category. The difference is that a dog tag is made of metal and, in order to fake it, has to be duplicated using another metal dog tag. To produce a fake dog tag, a fabricator needs not only an original dog tag or a copy of a U.S. duty roster to get the service member’s biographical information, but also a stamping machine and a genuine (not hand-made) dog tag blank of the correct weight, material and design. In comparison, a dog tag rubbing is made by transferring the exact information from a real or fake dog tag by holding it against a piece of paper (often the foil from inside a cigarette pack) or carbon paper, and rubbing it with a pencil or pen. In fact, some paper dog tags are handwritten.
Vietnamese ‘bone dealers’ (a cottage industry for some unscrupulous citizens in Vietnam) produce paper dog tags and turn them over to U.S. authorities along with a small chip of animal or human bone or tooth in the mistaken belief that they’ll receive money or preferential immigration status for their family to the United States. They produce and send in paper dog tags as proof of their sincerity and keep the original dog tags for making future rubbings. The CIL and other government agencies working in the POW/MIA arena receive many paper dog tags each month, and some of the names on them, we’ve been told, have been seen more than 60 times. Over the years we have seen numerous copies of the same paper dog tag through the CIL — ‘Bunk Queer’ and ‘John Mullins,’ for example — but we have not seen more than four metal dog tags from the same individual. The point is that paper dog tags are not the same as metal ones and should not be discussed as if they are; such a comparison is apples and oranges.
The first step in our research was to list as many of the 1,444 names as possible (some were damaged or too rusty to read) on the CIL Web site — now listed as www.jpac.pacom.mil — so that anyone browsing the Web could check to see if his or her name was listed. The reader could then contact the JPAC Web master by e-mail or telephone and answer a few questions that only the dog tag’s original owner or next of kin could know. For example, the veteran might be asked to give the last four digits of his or her Social Security number, or the complete military service number as listed on the dog tag. If the correct information was provided, we mailed the dog tag and a copy of the April 2002 Vietnam article to the veteran, along with a signed letter from the CIL. We return each dog tag to its original owner in the same condition that we received it — dirty, rusty, bent, scratched, or clean and shiny. We don’t want to wash away the dirt, or memories or evidence of what had happened three decades before.
Judging from the many Web sites (for example, FoundDogTags.com, topvietnamveterans.org, canamission.com, VietnamDogtags.com, etc.) and coverage in newspapers and national television shows, including the ‘Oprah Winfrey Show,’ across the United States in the past few years, reuniting lost dog tags with their owners has gained some attention. Unfortunately, and without any apparent basis in fact, some have labeled such reunions as misguided and the recovered dog tags as imitations manufactured by the Vietnamese. Such allegations have cast a shadow on the authenticity of all dog tags coming from the streets of Vietnam. Our research, by contrast, is showing that there appears to be less deviousness at play than some people might think. For example, we compared duplicate dog tags held at the JPAC with those of Cana Mission and Vietnam Dogtags, and found that the information and their features matched, indicating that they were stamped by the same stamping machines — rather than one dog tag having been stamped Stateside and the other one in Vietnam.
In November 2001 we posted more than 1,000 names on the CIL Web site. In January 2002 we got our first response, from a veteran named Dan Clipson who now resides in Oklahoma. Clipson served in Phu Bai from 1969 to 1970, and didn’t remember losing any dog tags. By asking a few questions, we verified that it was his dog tag and sent it to him the next day. A few weeks later we received a letter from him saying, ‘Please know that this is one former American soldier who thanks you for giving back to him a piece of his history….’ We were elated to be able to help Clipson reclaim a piece of his youth, and then waited for the next query; it arrived two months later. Since then we’ve received two or three dog tag queries each month.
Over the next year we verified and returned more than 20 dog tags to veterans living in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia and Germany. Twelve had served in the Army, two in the Navy and seven in the Marines. Two other veterans had died after the war, and we sent their dog tags to surviving family members.
What was most interesting and unexpected, however, were the circumstances and stories of how these dog tags became separated from their owners. Tony Kurr (Army, 1970-71), a soldier out of Schaumburg, Ill., unknowingly lost both of his dog tags in-country and got replacements, which he still has. Karl Voiles (Navy, 1968-69) wore a peace symbol around his neck and doesn’t remember losing his dog tags. Chuck Racette (Army, 1970-71) mistakenly left one of his dog tags tied to his boots when he turned them in at the out-processing station in Vietnam.
Others, such as Edward Liekis Jr. (Marines, 1967-68) and Spencer Zielenski (Army, 1969), after being wounded in battle, were taken to aid stations where medics cut off and discarded their boots with the dog tags tied to them. Joseph Chernowas was injured during a mortar attack and had his boot and dog tag cut off and tossed out the back door at an aid station. He remembers seeing flak jackets, bloody boots and steel helmets lying in piles behind one of the aid station tents. Ronald Castonguay (Army, 1970-71) of Massachusetts lost his dog tags when medics cut off his boots from his badly swollen feet in order to treat his trench foot. And then there was Alfred Pergeau, who lost both dog tags when his Marine squad was attacked by an NVA division in Quang Tri in 1969.
Steven Sweetland (Army, 1969-70) lost his as he was moving along Highway 1 from Da Nang to Chu Lai. John Kreucher (Navy, 1967-69) probably lost his when he sent them out with his laundry, while James Petyak (1967-68) thinks he lost his in the Phu Bai area. Chuck Manlove (Marines, 1966-67) received two reissues of dog tags in Vietnam and remembers losing one pair, as he put it: ‘…on ambush as the NVA attacked. We were only a reinforced squad. The VC followed us afterwards. When we finally got picked up I was running down the beach and taking off everything as fast as I could to get to the Amtrac and ran for home. I lost them north of Hue, three kilometers from the Ben Hai River in Dong Ha.’
Interestingly, Dan Clipson recognized the dog tag from Hue City as the one he had been issued in boot camp. He could tell because it showed his religion as ‘Methodist,’ while his second set had ‘Agnostic’ and the third set ‘Undecided.’ Dan certainly had a good sense of humor. As for what got stamped on dog tags, ‘You could have anything put on them if you knew the company clerks,’ was his reply. That also explains the dog tag we have with ‘ZIPPO THE GREAT’ on it. Our research revealed that the service number on that tag belonged to a Marine who served in Vietnam and went home after the war. And in fact the owner of that tag — Sergeant Martis Barton of Arkansas — just recently contacted us. So much for another purported fake!
One thing we have learned, based on dog tags that American teams have personally recovered from crash sites and graves around the world, is that having unusual or misspelled names or incorrect information on a dog tag is commonplace and doesn’t mean it’s not genuine.
After conversations with 17 veterans, we had learned a lot about the mystery of the dog tags in Vietnam, including — perhaps most important at this point — that the vast majority of them seem to be genuine. They were issued to U.S. service members, worn in and out of battle, lost, misplaced, given away as souvenirs, reissued, snagged and left on barbed wire, left hanging on bedposts or at out-processing stations, removed when wounds were treated, turned in while still tied to filthy, mud-covered boots or blown off their owners’ bodies in firefights.
Although we haven’t seen it firsthand, we accept the possibility that some Vietnamese may be hand stamping or etching dog tags for sale to tourists. One thing we’re not seeing, however, is evidence that any Vietnamese are either making fake or replica dog tags in mass quantities or producing ones bearing information that is machine-stamped. Vietnamese citizens are, nevertheless, still finding genuine dog tags along jungle paths, in their rice paddies and yards, in streams and at crash sites. Many are sold to scrap dealers or given to friends, whereupon they make their way to street vendors in the larger cities of Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and are eventually sold to tourists.
The simple truth is that dog tags are not the thriving business that some would have us believe they are. The best way to judge ‘what’s hot and what’s not’ on the streets and in the shops of Vietnam is to look at the display cabinets holding these items. Zippo-type lighters, Purple Hearts, military payment certificates, cameras, and military equipment such as survival knives and compasses are typically displayed on the top shelf; dog tags are relegated to the bottom shelf or some dusty box in the back.
The suggestion that the Vietnamese are feverishly stamping out dog tags in some back room in Da Nang just doesn’t hold up when all of the pieces of the puzzle are reassembled and examined together. For example, is there any proof that U.S. authorities left rosters listing detailed personal information on thousands of soldiers that included their last name, first name and middle initial, social security number and/or military service number, religion, blood type, gas mask size, date of their tetanus shot, and branch of service? If so, none of our Southeast Asia analysts at JPAC-CIL is aware of it. And while we’ve often heard accounts of the U.S. military leaving stamping machines behind when American troops pulled out in 1975, none of the authors has ever seen one in Southeast Asia, despite repeated requests to shop owners. In fact, when two of us tried to purchase ‘replacement dog tags’ for ourselves in Saigon, only hand stamping and etching were available. When a half-full box of vintage dog tag blanks from the 1960s and 1970s was found at a shop in Saigon, the owner could not recommend where it could be ‘professionally’ stamped. Two handmade dog tag blanks that were purchased were easily distinguishable from genuine blanks, as they were made of very shiny recycled metal, had irregular curled edges, bent very easily and had jagged eyelets/holes resembling cogwheels. Being machine made, the eyelets in genuine dog tags are precise and smooth, not ‘flowered.’ Eyelets resembling cogwheels are perhaps the best indicators of a handmade dog tag blank.
One of the things that researchers have to deal with is how to tell whether a particular dog tag is genuine or fake, and there are several ways. ‘Fake’ can either refer to the metallic composition of the dog tag or whether it was actually worn by a U.S. service member. Here is an example of how science proved the authenticity of a dog tag.
In 1966 two soldiers joined the Marines under the buddy system, with the guarantee that they would be stationed together throughout their career. They sat four chairs apart in boot camp and, as a result, received military service numbers that differed only in the last digit — one soldier’s service number ended in 602 and the other in 606. The following year, one of the buddies (606) was killed when the helicopter carrying him crashed in Vietnam. As of 2005, he is still unaccounted for. Despite all efforts, U.S. investigators have been unable to locate the crash site or recover the remains of the crew or passengers.
That would have been the end of the story if not for the fact that a dog tag showed up on the streets of Vietnam in 2002. A Connecticut couple visiting Vietnam, doing what they perceived as their patriotic duty, purchased some dog tags in Saigon and later learned that one (606) was from an unaccounted-for U.S. Marine killed in action. Through a bit of detective work, the couple located the Marine’s brother and returned the dog tag to him. The brother, after noticing a reddish substance on the dog tag that he believed might be blood, contacted the JTF-FA, which then contacted the CIL to check it out.
Once at the CIL, scientists measured and weighed the rectangular dog tag and, using a scanning electron microscope, determined that it was made of stainless steel, a substance commonly used to make dog tags before, during and after the Vietnam War. Its weight, size and features, including a smooth curled edge and the absence of an end-notch, were consistent with dog tags issued in the 1960s. Close examination of the dog tag also revealed evidence of bending, burning and exposure to moist soil for an extended period of time. Scientists at the CIL then took the dog tag to the Serology/DNA Unit of the Honolulu Police Department, where the reddish substance was tested and found not to be blood, but a mixture of corrosion and dirt. The combined evidence was consistent with a dog tag that was made, embossed and issued during the Vietnam War. The evidence also indicated that the dog tag might have been damaged in a helicopter crash.
The next step was to compare the dog tag (606) from Saigon with the one carried home after the war by the dead Marine’s buddy (602). Using a low-power microscope, CIL scientists noticed that the numbers 602 and 606 on the two dog tags slanted upward in exactly the same way. They also noted that ‘OLIC’ in ‘CATHOLIC’ was misaligned on both dog tags. There was no doubt that the same stamping machine had been used to emboss the dog tag purchased in Vietnam and the dog tag carried home after the war by the missing Marine’s buddy. Here was irrefutable proof that both dog tags were genuine, having been stamped by the same machine back in 1966. Anyone wanting to produce a fake dog tag to reflect all of the circumstances behind the real 606 dog tag would have had to go to some extraordinary lengths for $1, which is about what the dog tag sold for. In fact, to replicate the original 606 dog tag one would have to:
- Have a genuine/vintage dog tag blank.
- Have the precise and correct 606 personal information to include on a fake dog tag.
- Know that 606 had died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam.
- Replicate the exact misalignments and spacing on the 606 dog tag to match the dog tag of the buddy (602) who went home after the war.
- ‘Antique’ the fake dog tag to reflect long-term contact with moist soil and precisely mimic damage and burning associated with a downed helicopter.
Of course skeptics may say, ‘Well, that’s just one example, what about all the other dog tags?’ There’s no realistic way to answer that — in fact, it’s impossible to answer with certainty. What we have found, however, is that an intensive program to get to the bottom of these and other dog tag questions has revealed no evidence that any one of the 1,444 dog tags from Hue City is a fake. We’ve also found no evidence to support such statements as ‘You know, the Vietnamese are making dog tags out of beer cans over there ‘ (although we have found handmade dog tag blanks made of recycled metal in Saigon) and ‘Oh, they’re all fakes.’ Such statements only cloud the issue and cast doubt on the authenticity of many genuine U.S. dog tags. There’s no reason for the Vietnamese to produce fake dog tags or — perhaps more accurately — replica dog tags, using vintage blanks with machine-stamped personal information of someone who actually served in-country, when they have so many genuine ones at hand. Considering that some 2 1/2 million Americans served in Southeast Asia, some 5 million genuine dog tags have passed through there.
One unexpected and surprising finding, however, was that 15 of the 1,444 dog tags may belong to Americans killed in action. A check of the mortuary files maintained at JPAC revealed that eight of those 15 individuals were received at the Da Nang and Tan Son Nhut mortuaries missing one or both of their dog tags. For comparison, a random records search of 325 American service members who died in Vietnam and Laos between 1969 and 1971 revealed that 56 percent of them (182 people) were received at the mortuaries without any dog tags, 19 percent (61) had only one dog tag, 23 percent (75) had two, and three individuals had three dog tags. Perhaps a buddy, one of the graves records personnel at the collection point, or even the enemy, removed the dog tags after the soldiers were dead but before they were received at one of the two mortuaries in-country. Regardless, the dog tags for all 15 of the above-mentioned service members ended up on the streets of Hue City more than 30 years after being lost.
What We’ve Learned So Far…
Trying to unravel the mystery of the dog tags and determining whether a dog tag is genuine or fake represent a necessary, albeit complicated and difficult, step in understanding how and why service members became separated from their dog tags. While many tags were dropped, forgotten, misplaced, given away as souvenirs or turned in while attached to boots, many others were ‘lost’ in the heat of battle.
The purpose of the project is fourfold. The original and primary goal is to reunite lost dog tags with their owners. The second is to develop criteria for distinguishing genuine dog tags from fakes. The third is to understand the circumstances of when, where, why and how dog tags became separated from their owners by talking to the service members who lost them. The fourth is to trace the path of dog tags from the time they left their American owners until they ended up on the streets of Vietnam. Regardless of the circumstances of loss, each dog tag has a history — whether it is genuine or fake — and each carries information that we hope may lead to identification of a missing service member.
The ultimate goal of this research, however, is to understand how dog tags can be used to help locate crash sites and unmarked graves in a land of jungles, mountains, rivers and rice fields. These rectangular pieces of metal, worn close to the hearts of service members in battle, carry not only information intended for identification after death, but also, as we’re learning, unintentional information about how they were lost, where they were found and the hands that found them.Before we undertook this research, who would ever have thought that a few subtle features of a dog tag, such as being bent, burnt or covered with soil, could carry such a wealth of information about the circumstances surrounding the loss or death of a service member? What we do know is that in some cases dog tags, like silent witnesses, may be the only available source for locating missing service members and, therefore, deserve attention. Although we don’t claim to have all of the answers when it comes to dog tags, we’re certainly trying and, as a result, are getting a little closer to the truth. So, what may have begun as souvenir collecting for some and an act of good faith and Samaritanism for others may someday help investigators locate, recover and identify some of our MIAs…even if we only find one.
Robert W. Mann, Ph.D., is a deputy scientific director, Robert C. Maves is senior analyst and Thomas D. Holland, Ph.D., is scientific director of the JPAC-CIL. The authors wish to thank the men and women of the JPAC in Stony Beach, and the CIL for their dedication and continued efforts in both the laboratory and field. The authors also thank Richard Hites and Johnie E. Webb Jr. for their dedication and insightful thinking. Mr. and Mrs. Robert McMahon and Stacey Hansen deserve special thanks for their commitment and involvement in reuniting veterans with their lost dog tags. Thanks also to Professor Allen L. Johnson, Department of Chemistry at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, for interpreting the composition of some dog tags, and Dr. Niels J. Zussblatt of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis for helping to verify information on some of the dog tags. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect that of the JPAC, CIL, CILHI, JTF-FA, Stony Beach or other U.S. government personnel or organizations. For additional reading, see MIA: Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, by Paul D. Mather.
This article was originally published in the August 2005 issue of Vietnam Magazine.
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