Commentary

Snow: Lost dog tags embedded with a GI's memories

asnow@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

Have you thought about the number of things – besides your hair, teeth and the way home – that you do your best not to lose?

The list is endless. Your wallet is full of them, For example, just losing all those ID cards can cause a peck of red tape trouble for weeks or more.

My problem today: I’ve lost my dog tags.

“So, no big deal,” you say. “Go to a vet and get some more.”

I don’t have a dog. I’m referring to two little aluminum discs that I wore on a chain around my neck for 30 months during World War II.

I don’t think I took my dog tags off from the time I was sworn in at Fort Bragg until I was sworn out at Fort Bragg 30 months later. Incidentally, military dog tags have been around since 1870, when young men also marched off to battle in the Franco-Prussian War.

Most husbands surviving a lasting marriage live in dread of losing their wedding bands. A wife knows that a white circle on a man’s third finger left hand usually means he’s divorced, he’s between loves or he’s lost his wedding band.

And some woman’s feelings are awfully hurt because, “He should have been more careful.”

So, it’s off to the jewelers to replace the wedding band lest someone at the grocery store, or the mall or at the office thinks the man is available for all kinds of shenanigans, even marriage.

No, losing one’s dog tags isn’t nearly the catastrophe of losing a wedding ring, but to anyone who has worn a military uniform, the loss is not inconsequential.

Those two little discs, containing the soldier’s name, rank, serial number and blood type, are a vital part of a military experience. They conjure all the experiences: the weariness from the 20-mile hikes, the pain from the pushups and pullups, the lonely nights on perimeter guard in some foreign outpost.

Their purpose, though, is more vital than conjuring memories. Their primary purpose is to identify the wounded and the killed in battle.

Sure, the lost tags can be easily replaced for a few bucks. But the emotional attachment associated with them cannot.

Ken Burns, in a World War II television special last year, related one of the most unusual “happy endings” involving dog tags that I’ve ever heard:

Alabama-born Glenn Frazier, a survivor of the Bataan Death March and three years’ imprisonment in Japan, was helping dig a mass grave in the Philippines for hundreds of buddies killed by the Japanese. Figuring he would suffer the same fate, Frazier tossed his own dog tags into the grave, so that if they were ever found, his family would have some idea of where his body lay.

Sure enough, when U.S. forces retook the Philippines and found Frazier’s dog tags in the mass grave, his family naturally was notified that he’d been killed.

At war’s end, the first thing Frazier did upon arriving in the States was call his family.

His mother answered the phone and upon hearing her son’s voice, fainted. His sister picked up the phone and did likewise. A visiting aunt also fainted at hearing the news.

When Frazier’s father came to the phone and heard his son’s voice, he said, “I never believed for a moment that you were dead. Now, son, will you hang on a moment? I’ve got three dead women here on the floor. Let me try to revive them, and I’ll be right back.”

As I said, I can replace the lost tags. But I won’t. They would have no meaning.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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