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.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
Do you have a question about the Washington area? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.