As far as we knew, Elvis Presley had never been to Vietnam, but we found his dog tags and they appeared to be genuine.
The temperature was climbing in Ho Chi Minh City. It was mid-December 2008 and we were in Vietnam running down leads, interviewing local witnesses and searching for American crash sites and graves as part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). On our off-hours a few of us worked what you might call the “Dog Tag Watch.” My partners in Vietnam are language specialists and MIA investigators Robert C. “Bulldog” Maves and Ron Ward. Key to our efforts is personnel records investigator Dr. Niels J. Zussblatt, a senior analyst at the National Personnel Records Center back in St. Louis. I am Dr. Robert W. Mann, forensic anthropologist. As always, we were on the lookout for U.S. dog tags and went to a shop we’d heard was selling them. The shop owner pointed out her stash, and we began sorting through hundreds of dog tags, looking for clues about their authenticity. That’s when we found two of the most intriguing of the many unusual dog tags that have confounded researchers throughout the years trying to solve the puzzle of the ubiquitous dog tag trade in Vietnam. They both read: PRESLEY, ELVIS AUS53310761 USA BAPTIST O POS. As far as we knew, Elvis Presley had never been to Vietnam. But the tags appeared to be genuine.
This is a story about scientists, linguists and analysts working together in pursuit of the truth about the authenticity of dog tags that are being peddled today in Vietnam and how and why so many of them were left behind…or in the case of the Elvis dog tags, how they got to Vietnam in the first place.
Whenever we travel to Vietnam, our in-country team—Maves, Ward and myself—canvasses shops and vendors looking for dog tags, while Zussblatt searches through personnel files in St. Louis to corroborate the information stamped on them. It’s an efficient working relationship that often allows us to reunite soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines with their lost dog tags.
I became interested in dog tags when I visited a small souvenir shop in Da Nang in 1993. My search and recovery team was staying at the Bach Dang Hotel along the riverfront, and in my off hours I visited the local shops in search of interesting items left behind during the war. My first visit to one of the shops next to the Bach Dang Hotel ignited my interest in dog tags because I had always heard that the vast majority of them were fakes, produced by some enterprising Vietnamese for sale to tourists. The problem, as I saw it, was that most of the dog tags for sale on the streets looked genuine; they appeared to be the same size, weight, appearance and metal composition as those issued to U.S. troops during the war. Most of the tags were rusty, dirty, bent, scratched, nicked, burned or torn. Still, I firmly believed that some Vietnamese were producing fake dog tags for sale to tourists after the war, and, from our many visits to souvenir shops, we knew that items could be made to look old and authentic.
To us, an “authentic” dog tag is one issued to and worn by a U.S. service member or Department of Defense civilian in Southeast Asia. In contrast, we consider a “fake” dog tag to be one either composed of locally made metals, or one that the Vietnamese stamped with incorrect information, specifically for sale to unsuspecting foreign tourists. But we’ve learned over the years that a misspelled name or other incorrect information doesn’t necessarily mean that a dog tag is fake. These observations and unanswered questions led us down a path of scientific research in trying to figure out which were authentic and which were not.
What we knew early on, or at least what had been reported to us, was that the Vietnamese had gotten their hands on old addressograph machines that the United States abandoned when American troops departed Vietnam in 1975. Following this logic, the Vietnamese could have stamped the vital information on dog tags and then “antiqued” the tags by rubbing them on concrete, burying them in dirt or dipping them in acid—certainly possible, but a lot of work for a couple of dollars, especially if genuine dog tags were readily available. We deduced that such detailed biographical information on the tags could only have come from abandoned or discarded U.S. records bearing the names of GIs, their military service number (or social security number), blood type, gas mask size, date of last tetanus shot, branch of service and religion. Unless thousands of personnel or medical records were left behind in 1975, there does not appear to be any way such data could have been obtained.
Frequently, as recovery teams excavate aircraft crash sites and isolated burials, or as local citizens clear ordnance, dig a house foundation or cultivate their rice fields, a dog tag is pulled out of the ground. Not surprisingly, unless the tags are recovered by American search teams during repatriation work, they are typically turned over by the locals and sold for about a buck and a half each to the nearest vendor or scrap dealers passing through. The tags usually end up in small souvenir shops and street vendor stands, along with old Zippo lighters, compasses, eyeglasses, aircraft parts, belts, buckles, uniforms, jungle boots, U.S. canteens—you name it—to be peddled to tourists.
As researchers, we know that the best way to understand something is to systematically study it and let the evidence “speak” for itself. To try to get to the bottom of the matter over the years, we have interviewed many Vietnamese shop owners and U.S. service members, weighed and measured dozens of dog tags, performed elemental analysis to determine their composition and tested a few to determine if there were any traces of blood left on them. We have even superimposed dog tags purchased in Vietnam with authentic ones from family members and service members who survived the war and returned home.
Based on this work, we have concluded that the vast majority of dog tags being sold in Vietnam are authentic—the “owners” wore them when they served in Vietnam and were either killed in action, went missing in action or simply lost them before returning home. But what was the case with Elvis’ dog tags?
Elvis’ dog tags weren’t the only unusual ones we found. From a batch of about 1,000 we’ve culled through on our trips to Vietnam over the past three years, we ended up purchasing more than 100 of them. They reveal the resourcefulness, sentimentality and unreserved iconoclasm of our soldiers through the practical names or creative—sometimes crude—messages stamped into them. These non-ID dog tags are what we call “gag tags,” made for almost every conceivable practical reason and just for fun. The practice of using dog tags for purposes other than personnel identification was not confined to Vietnam, however, and even today, the military uses dog tags to tag such things as vehicle keys, building keys and tool boxes.
In our analysis of the Elvis dog tags, Zussblatt found that other than the religion, the information stamped on them was accurate. Elvis’ personnel record lists his religious preference as Pentecostal, while Baptist is stamped on the tag. The format, spacing and alignment of the lettering and information on both dog tags are identical, indicating that the same machine stamped both. Elvis didn’t serve in Vietnam and as far as we know never traveled there, so the Vietnamese would not have had access to his personal and biological information from abandoned or discarded personnel or medical files to then create a set of fakes.
We attempted to contact the Presley family and Elvis Presley Enterprises about the Elvis tags, but have not received a reply. Because Elvis Presley is deemed a “person of exceptional prominence” and has been dead for at least 10 years, and since a military service number is not protected like a social security number, the Army Record Manager gave permission to the National Personnel Records Center to fully open Elvis’ record.
Zussblatt looked up Presley’s military record. He entered the U.S. Army on March 24, 1958, in Memphis and served with Headquarters Company, 32nd Armor in Germany. Sergeant Presley was released from active service at Fort Dix, N.J., March 5, 1960, and was transferred to the Army Reserve (Inactive) to serve the rest of his six-year military service obligation. At the time of his discharge, he was single and living at Graceland, Highway 51 South, in Shelby County, Tenn….a long way from Vietnam.
Although there is no way to know for sure, there is the remote possibility that these dog tags were made for and issued to Elvis, and that he may have later given them to an American GI who carried them to Vietnam as a souvenir or memento. If, as we suspect, this isn’t the scenario, we would put these in the category of gag tags, likely created by a prankster GI during the Vietnam War. While it is possible that someone stamped this dog tag after the war and “antiqued” it sufficiently to look genuine for sale to tourists, the circumstances in which we found the tags makes that seem highly unlikely. Since we dug the Elvis dog tags out of a pile of hundreds of others—rather than finding them on display or priced at a premium—the shopkeeper obviously didn’t know their significance.
The shop owner told us that she began selling military artifacts and genuine dog tags 15 years ago and that people continue to bring in dog tags for sale from Cu Chi, Nha Trang, Bien Hoa, Da Nang, Hue, Khe Sanh, My Tho, Tay Ninh, Ben Tre and Can Tho. In fact, while I was there, a man delivered a batch of 20 dog tags wrapped in newspaper. The owner admitted she knew of one shop that started making fakes in the last few years to sell to foreign tourists. She said the small company in Cholon, which produces license plates for motorbikes and signs for advertising, also uses a machine to stamp out and curl the edges of dog tags, using sheet metal used for roofs and walls. The owner of the shop claimed she didn’t like to buy fake tags, but that they often came in with batches of “old” dog tags, so she had to take them. While we’ve seen obvious fakes over the years, this was the first time we got solid confirmation that at least some Vietnamese citizens are producing them.
During his latest trip to Hanoi in 2009, Ward visited with a Vietnamese war memorabilia vendor he’d known for years named Trung. He invited Ward to see the dog tags he had at his shop along one of Hue City’s tree-lined sidewalks. Not wanting to pass up a good opportunity, Ward purchased 27 of the more unusual tags. He then interviewed Trung about the dog tag business in Vietnam and was rewarded with an interesting revelation—another piece in the puzzle.
Trung explained to Ward that the dog tags which have smaller and shallower letters than those we typically find on “authentic” tags were actually stamped using a different type of machine at an American base in Thailand and issued to U.S. service members on their way to Vietnam. Despite the accurate information on them, the tags bearing those different stamping characteristics have long been thought to be fakes.
As Americans travel to Vietnam in increasingly greater numbers, concerns about the propriety of purchasing authentic U.S. property such as dog tags and other artifacts have arisen. In March 2009, American Andrew Wietecha walked into the U.S. Consulate General Office in Ho Chi Minh City and turned over more than 500 dog tags that he bought while visiting Hue and nearby Hoi An. The Michigan resident, whose father served in Vietnam, wanted to purchase the dog tags and try to reunite them with their owners. The consulate office turned the tags over to Maves at the U.S. MIA Office in Hanoi, and he passed them to me while I was in Vietnam. I contacted Wietecha to ask him to elaborate on how, when and why he bought the dog tags.
“I was very aware that buying the dog tags was only perpetuating the selling of war articles, which is a practice that I believe borders on being immoral,” Wietecha said. “I also feel very strongly that any item that clearly has a serviceman’s name on it should be repatriated to the respective government of the man who once owned that item. I decided the lesser of two evils was to purchase the dog tags so as to repatriate them.”
I sent Zussblatt a partial list of the names on the dog tags that Wietecha had purchased. He then found recent mailing addresses for their owners and sent them letters explaining how they could get their dog tags back through the JPAC office in Hawaii. Within two weeks, we had received letters from seven servicemen requesting their dog tags back.
Despite what some say, our research has shown that the vast majority of the thousands of dog tags for sale on the streets and in the small shops throughout Vietnam are authentic—made in the United States or in Vietnam, stamped and worn by our service personnel who served in-country, many of whom were killed in action. The simple fact is, tens of thousands of dog tags were lost in the heat of battle or during medical treatment, and left behind.
There is no doubt that there are plenty of fake dog tags in Southeast Asia and more than a few shop owners who will say anything to make a couple of bucks. But, as we observed firsthand, Vietnamese shopkeepers regularly receive bags full of genuine dog tags that have been found, so there is little need for the Vietnamese to produce fakes.
In an effort to reunite the tags with their owners, JPAC is now entering the names on dog tags we’ve retrieved into its database and posting them on its website: jpac.pacom.mil, which provides instructions on how to go about authenticating and retrieving an owner’s dog tag. (See below for details.)
To date, JPAC has more than 1,000 dog tag names on the list, and it has reunited 86 tags with their owners or loved ones. The firsthand details of when, where and how service members lost their dog tags is fascinating. Some were removed in aid stations when their owners were wounded, others were left in-country when GIs rotated out of Vietnam, others were lost when a dog tag chain broke in the midst of battle. Each story helps to solve the mystery of the dog tags left behind—and serves as a poignant reminder of the war and how it changed people’s lives. H
How To Retrieve a Lost Dog Tag
The Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command’s Dog Tag Project is attempting to reunite more than 1,000 dog tags that have been found in Vietnam with their owners or family members. An alphabetical list of the names stamped on these tags is posted on the JPAC website.
Go to www.jpac.pacom.mil and click on the Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) tab and select Dog Tag Project from the pull-down menu.
Those who believe their dog tags, or those of a family member, are on the list, are encouraged to contact JPAC via information found on the web site or call using their toll-free phone number 1-866-913-1286.
In addition to JPAC’s project, Cana Mission is a private effort to reunite dog tags with their owners. The nonprofit organization was the brainchild of a Vietnam vet and his wife who have acquired hundreds of tags in Ho Chi Minh City over the last decade. Cana Mission’s searchable list of names is posted at www.canamission.com.
Robert W. Mann was the Central Identification Laboratory deputy scientific director for 10 years before assuming the position of director of the Forensic Science Academy in 2008. Robert C. Maves is chief of the JPAC Southeast Asia Analytical Section. Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Ron Ward is the casualty resolution specialist at the U.S. MIA Office (JPAC, Detachment Two) in Hanoi. Retired Army Lt. Col. Niels J. Zussblatt’s major focus at the National Personnel Records Center is assisting children who were born to foreign nationals and American military personnel uncover information about their fathers.
The views expressed by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of the Department of Defense or National Archives.