Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content
Document Type
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials


13 May 1941

From: The Chief of the Bureau of Navigation.

To: All Ships and Stations.

Subject: Identification Tags.

Enclosures: (A) Instructions as to preparation of tags.

1. The Bureau directs that each officer and enlisted man of the Navy and Naval Reserve be issued an identification tag prepared in accordance with instructions given in Enclosure (A).

2. The graphotype machines used for stamping the data on the tags will be furnished to each Naval District, Training Station, four to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, two to the U.S. Atlantic Fleet and one to the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

3. The issuance of the tags should be started as soon as the graphotype machines, tags and equipment necessary for the preparation of the tags are received.

4. The graphotype machines, tags, chemicals and equipment will not be ready for distribution to the Service until about the middle of August. The graphotype machines will be delivered direct to the activities named in paragraph two. The tags, chemicals and equipment required may be obtained on requisition from the Commandants at the Navy Yards, New York, Mare Island, California and Cavite P. I.

5. It is estimated that 2 lbs. of powdered Asphaltum, 1/2 lb. of nitric acid and an ounce of Hydrochloric acid will be necessary to etch the fingerprints on a thousand identification tags. -

C.W. Nimitz


The identification tag for officers and enlisted men of the Navy consists of an oval plate of monel metal 1.25 by 1.50 inches, perforated at each end and suspended from the neck by a monel wire encased in a cotton sleeve. The tag has on one side the etched fingerprint of the right index finger. On the other side the following information will be embossed by the graphotype machine:

(a) Name.

(b) Officer's rank or man's service number.

(c) Type of blood, and if the man has received tetanus toxoid, the letter "T" with date (T 8/40) to so indicate.

(d) At one end of the tag the letters "USN", "USNR", "USMC", or "USMCR", whichever may be appropriate will be placed.

On the reverse side of the tag, a fingerprint of the officer's or the man's right index finger will be etched. The etching of the tag shall be done by such member or members of the Hospital Corps as the medical officer may designate. The following articles are required:

1) The outfit for making a fingerprint on paper.

2) Gilsonite or powdered asphaltum.

3) Nitric acid, 1 part by volume; water, 2 parts by volume, in glass dish. A sufficient quantity of hydrochloric acid should be added to this solution to facilitate to the etching of the fingerprint.

4) Alcohol lamp with good flame or electric stove.

5) A device for holding the tag without touching the flat surfaces (not supplied, but device can be improvised by any carpenter's mate).

The steps in the preparation of the etchings are as follows: After collecting the various articles described above, take an ordinary "rolled" fingerprint on paper to show that the finger is clean, not too heavily inked, etc., and will make a good print. Make a "rolled" fingerprint (right index finger) on the metal tag in the usual manner.

While ink is still fresh on the fingerprint, sprinkle it with finely powdered asphaltum. Some of this will mix with the ink and stick to the surface. The rest should be blown off. Now heat the tag slightly above the boiling point of water. Allow the tag to cool. Put it in the nitric acid solution for one-half hour. Remove, wash in water, and dry.

Great care is to be exercised in the preparation of the tags, so as to avoid useless expense for tags spoiled in the process. The following cautions are to be noted: Remove all excess ink from the finger, leaving a smooth, uniform coating. Press the finger lightly against the metal tag, avoiding too great pressure, as this will smear the impression.

If the first impression with ink is not satisfactory, make it again on a fresh tag. Tags that have been soiled with printer's ink can be used again after thorough cleansing with gasoline. The cleansing must be thorough, as the least trace of ink left on the tag from a previous attempt will spoil the etching. (It is well to put aside the tags on which poor printing has been done and clean them up all at one time for use). Be careful not to smudge the fingerprint.

The next step is the application of the gilsonite or asphaltum. This should be fine enough to pass through a sieve having 100 meshes to the square inch. Sprinkle thickly on the wet surface. Remove what does not mix with and stick to the ink by tapping and blowing.

The tag is now held with forceps over a flame or stove until the ink and asphaltum have melted together, forming sharp, glossy, black lines.

If not enough heat is applied to completely melt the asphalt the action of the acid will be too powerful. Complete melting of the asphalt is indicated by the lines becoming glossy. If too much heat is applied the lines run together and are obliterated. The etching solution consists of concentrated nitric acid, 1 part by volume; water 2 parts by volume plus a small quantity of hydrochloric acid.

The solution may be placed in glass, china, or enameled iron-ware (if there are no nicks or cracks). A number of tags can be etched at once, but do not pile them one on top of the other. The name side should be down and the fingerprint side up while in the acid bath. This will prevent the lettering on the name side of the tag being removed by the acid.

The etching process or acid bath should be watched and a tag lifted out from time to time to see how lively the action is. It can be moderated by adding water. Usually the process of etching requires one half-hour. The acid solution naturally weakens with use and should be renewed from time to time. If the corrosive action is low and beginning, concentrated hydrochloric acid (HC) may be added - 1 part to every 30 seconds of the nitric solution.

If the name side of the tag is placed down in the acid bath, it is not necessary to place any repellent on this side of the tag as the acid will not affect this lettering put on by the graphotype machine. The fingerprint is etched with the fingerprint side up.

The etching of the fingerprint is greatly facilitated by the addition of a small quantity of hydrochloric acid. The graphotype machine should be set so that the lettering on the tags is sufficiently deep to prevent the acid from eating away the lettering. The depth of the lettering on the tag can be regulated by the pressure device on the graphotype machine.


Published: Tue Jan 24 11:56:16 EST 2017