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 full-page 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.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
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