(CNN) — Marian Cook Haddock keeps a weathered picture of her uncle Pete in the living room of her home in New Bern, North Carolina. Pete, in a freshly starched khaki uniform, gazes confidently at the camera.
Haddock was just a tot when her lanky uncle joined the US Army and was shipped off to the Philippines. She doesn’t remember much about that time — except for the great sadness that followed when Charles E. “Pete” Cook Jr. was reported missing after Japanese forces took Corregidor, a tiny rock-strewn island in Manila Bay, during World War II.
“The only thing I can remember is my grandma being upset,” Haddock said. It took many agonizing months for Cook’s parents to learn he was presumed dead.
His mother wore her youngest son’s Purple Heart on her jacket and was buried with the medal when she died in 1964.
The soldier’s remains have never been found, leaving the family no true closure. This fall, a small sliver of metal changed that.
Butch Maisel, who co-curates a military history museum at The Boys’ Latin School of Maryland in Baltimore, bestowed upon them a precious gift: a dog tag Cook wore at Corregidor.
Maisel purchased nearly a dozen dog tags found in the Philippines and has set about getting them to relatives.
Those involved in forwarding dog tags know the items have great importance to families, that they are reminders of the role their relatives had in the American story.
Much of Maisel’s inspiration is an older half brother he never knew. Pfc. Mack “Bill” Church, 18, was killed in action in Korea in September 1950.
“My physical memory of my brother is his dog tag. I have his dog tag in a case at home. I know how much these dog tags mean to family members because I know how much this dog tag means to me.”
On Thursday, Veterans Day, Maisel will lead a program at the prep school. The focus will be on how artifacts such as the dog tags can preserve and promote a soldier’s memory.
Pete Cook was remembered at a ceremony this fall in New Bern. His framed dog tag is now in Haddock’s living room — near his photo.
“It feels like they brought him back home where he belongs,” his niece, 82, says. “All these years he was missing.”
How did dog tags get their name?
The US military began issuing some form of identification tags to service members well before World War II.
There are several theories on how dog tags got their name: A Defense Department article said one story holds they garnered the moniker because they looked similar to the metal tag on a dog’s collar. Another has WWII draftees calling them that because they claimed they were treated like dogs.
The tags have evolved in shape and information over the years. By World War II, they were a rounded rectangle made of nickel-copper alloy. “Each was mechanically stamped with your name, rank, service number, blood type and religion, if desired,” according to the article. “An emergency notification name and address were initially included on these, but they were removed by the end of the war.” There have been further changes since.
Maisel obtained the dog tags and other artifacts from Bill Kirwan, a Boys’ Latin School alum who has done mission work in the Philippines and is part of a psychotherapy practice in Annapolis, Maryland.
Kirwan, who collects various items, told CNN he has made more than 60 trips to the Philippines and Corregidor in particular.
Friends he has made there over the years have “generously presented us with artifacts they have found in areas around their homes. Our friends know the sentimental value these items have to Americans and take great pleasure in knowing we will honor and respect what each artifact represents,” Kirwan said.
Kirwan said he believes all the dog tags were found on Corregidor but it is difficult to know for certain. Some are nearly indecipherable and it’s possible a few were made before World War II.
“They struck a chord with me,” Maisel said. “I told the owner if I get these, I will try to get these back to the families. I spent hours cleaning these things just to read them.”
The educator is learning more about the veterans identified on the tags — whether they died in fighting or were captured by the Japanese when the Allies surrendered in early May 1942. Some may have lost the tags.
Maisel, who uses serial number and other databases and unit histories, is currently working to deliver a tag to relatives of Dunkirk, New York, Pvt. Frank Acquavia, who also died on Corregidor. Acquavia was captured and is believed to have been shot while being marched to a transport, he said. His dog tag has an earlier design.
A local son is remembered for his sacrifice
After finding military service and obituary information on Cook this summer, Maisel reached out to VFW Post 2514 in New Bern, a river city near the Atlantic coast and a retiree haven. Post adjutant Bobby Edwards contacted local genealogist David French, who is related to the Cooks. French called Marian Haddock.
Cook, 19, served with the US 60th Coast Artillery, which was part of the anti-aircraft defenses near Manila. The Japanese military conquered many islands, including the Philippines, in the months following Pearl Harbor. “People were on pins and needles all over the country, that you would get a telegram” indicating your loved one was missing or had been killed, said French.
Edwards said research shows Cook was likely killed in an artillery barrage in the fierce fight. “The Japanese zeroed in on the heavy mortars at Corregidor and took them out.” The island fell a few days after Cook went missing. (The Army recaptured Corregidor in 1945.)
The young soldier’s name is on a tablet in the Philippines and a monument in Craven County, home to New Bern.
“This is the story of a local son who joins the military before the war begins,” says Edwards. “Corregidor is the story of Pete Cook. It is a courageous defense of the island.”
The VFW post hosted the dog tag presentation to Haddock in September as part of National POW/MIA Recognition Day. Maisel traveled to New Bern for the event.
Haddock told CNN that for a long time she thought her uncle would come home. The news about the dog tags erased any doubts.
“That was a weird feeling,” she said. “It is something I did not expect. I have heard of people finding things. I did not think it would ever happen here.”
What really matters to veterans
For Maisel, 68, it’s important that the stories of veterans are kept alive.
His late father, Frederick C. Maisel Jr., was an Army company commander who received a Silver Star for his actions at Utah Beach on D-Day. The major was severely wounded 16 days later. “The war was over for him.”
Since the early 1970s, Maisel, who taught history and coached for years at Boys’ Latin School, has collected more than 10,000 military related items — most original, and some replicas.
He got the history bug after a visit to the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield. Someone let him hold a musket. “I was on cloud nine. That was real. From now on, I wanted to share real things with students.”
He collects with his son, Chris, a major with the Army National Guard. “He wears my father’s insignias. I pinned those on him when he got promoted.”
The museum at Boys’ Latin School is in essence a “living classroom.” Much of the collection is in large cases filled with military-issued items, artifacts and mannequins. The Boys’ Latin Center for Military History also highlights alumni who served in the armed forces.
The school also honors about 25 graduates who died while serving in the military.
Maisel said he doesn’t focus on the politics and strategic ramifications of warfare. That belongs in other classrooms in the school, he said. “I talk about people’s lives. I talk about a real person. Every case has photographs of persons in them.”
He has met thousands of veterans in talks, events and artifact sales, and they especially identify with small personal items, many of which were donated. “They want to talk about the guy next to them. They rarely speak about the big picture.”
‘Little piece of tin’ made long journey
Maisel is not the only one working to return dog tags to veteran families.
Sue Quinn-Morris, of the New Jersey-based Patriot Connections Dog Tag Project, has returned about 170 dog tags over the years — many of them hand-delivered — and is working on another 250.
They come to her from a variety of places. “Some people (find them) when they are metal detecting, or they might go to a flea market and someone is selling them there.” She receives several emails a month, the most recent about tags belonging to Korean War and World War II vets. “You would be surprised how many people find dog tags and want to return them.”
Many tags in Quinn-Morris’ custody were purchased in Vietnam by a Marine veteran who was in Da Nang for charity work and saw them in a shop.
Bob Gunton, an actor who played the warden in “The Shawshank Redemption,” lost his tag nearly 50 years ago while in Vietnam. His tag was in that batch, and it was returned to him in 2018.
“I’ve been in a state of shock about this little piece of myself, this little piece of tin that made a journey of thousands of miles through many decades back to me … and it means so much,” Gunton said, according to an article in the Courier-Post in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
Kirwan said it is an honor to have played a part in returning the items to service members’ families. “These were men who gave their lives in defense of freedom and democracy. They quite literally changed the world.”
Edwards, of the VFW post in New Bern, said the dog tags perpetuate a service member’s name — and life.
“As long as their name is out there, they are remembered,” Edwards said.
(Copyright (c) 2021 CNN. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)