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Operation Tat-Type: Why Some American Kids Got Tattooed With Blood-Type

Operation Tat-Type

Photo: Hole in the Clouds

The paranoia during the early years of the Cold War was so great that many American school children were made to wear dog tags, like soldiers wear around their necks, to enable identification of bodies in the aftermath of an atomic attack. Later, another bizarre initiative was promoted—tattoo children and young people with their blood-type. Blood-type tattoos was anticipated to save thousands of lives following an atomic bomb attack because this information could enable rapid blood transfusions. But the proposal to brand people with their blood-type had a more disturbing purpose. The idea was not that people could receive blood when they needed, but rather become donors who could be identified from their branding and be plucked off the streets to save another. This program was known as Operation Tat-Type.

Blood-type tattooing took place in response to the increased need for blood during the Korean Conflict in the 1950s. During the war, most of the blood collected was shipped overseas, creating a shortage at home. Besides, existing stock at blood banks was at risk of destruction by attacks or damage by radioactivity. Efforts were launched across the United States to determine the blood type of as many Americans as possible to create “walking blood banks” who could give on-the-spot transfusions.

The Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee (CCDC), led by Dr. Andrew C. Ivy, approved a massive tattooing program in 1950. The CCDC promoted blood-typing as a painless procedure, involving just a pinprick on their fingertip. The tattooing itself was described as akin to vaccination. Dr. Ivy had served as an American Medical Association consultant at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, where he observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried tattoos indicating their blood type on the inner arm or chest. It is possible that Dr. Ivy took inspiration from these body markings and became one of the leading proponents of the scheme.

Operation Tat-Type

SS soldiers showing their blood-type tattoos.

The location of the tattoo was important. Arms and legs were ruled out as possible sites because they could be torn off during an explosion. Tattoos were typically made on the side of the chest, underneath the arms, or on the hips, just like the soldiers of the Waffen-SS.

Operation Tat-Type

A graphic from a news report published on August 1 1950 in The Chicago Tribune announcing the program.

Despite Dr. Ivy’s efforts, the tattooing program never took off in Chicago. But in the nearby Lake County, Indiana, the program received support from the local medical society, and Operation Tat-Type was officially born. By the end of 1951, some 15,000 residents of Lake County was typed, of which two-third opted for tattooing. The overwhelming response to the program encouraged the Lake County Medical Society to move towards making children into mobile blood banks.

In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana, were chosen for testing. Kids were given permission slips to take home to their parents for their consent. Once consent was obtained, on the appointed day, students had their thumbs pricked and their blood typed. From there, they filed into a waiting room. Students were called one at a time to a curtained-off area in the same room, behind which a medical officer inspected the cards identifying the student and his or her blood type. The child then removed his (or her) upper clothes while another person prepared the tattoo gun. In the waiting room, seating in their little chairs, the remaining kids waited in growing apprehension as each student walked into the curtained area and came out crying. The only thing they could hear was a buzzing sound similar to a dentist's drill, and plenty of screaming.

Operation Tat-Type

Jari Zickuhr, of Hyattsville, Maryland, was given this tattoo marking her blood type as “O+” in 1952, when she was 11 and a student in Lake County, Indiana. Photo: Jari Zickuhr

Operation Tat-Type

A fourth grader at St Casimir’s school in Hammond, Indiana, received this tattoo marking her blood-type—O positive. It is barely legible now.

“I remember a day, vividly, when kids were screaming at school, and it really frightened me and I tried to get out and I couldn’t, and, I guess, in my way of thinking, it was my turn, and I was crying, I was sobbing. I felt this really bad sting, and then I cried and cried and cried,” recalls Annella Petkovich-Dixon. Later, her mother, perhaps regretting the decision to have her daughter tattooed, tried to wipe off the blue mark with soap and water, but of course, it didn’t go away.

A similar scheme was afoot in Utah, under the backing of Dr. Omar Samuel Budge and his brother Dr. Oliver Wendell Budge, with crucial help from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which announced that Mormons could get blood-type tattoos, exempting them from religious prohibition.

While the tattoos were permanent, the tattooing program itself was short-lived. The Korean conflict came to an end in 1953, reducing the need for blood. Besides, standard medical practice requires cross-matching before blood transfusion was carried out, which nullified the entire purpose of pretyping. Also, the program was voluntary. Donors could choose whether to receive a tattoo or a dog tag. A feasibility study conducted in Michigan and Massachusetts found that one out of every four, who received dog tags, had lost it, and 60 percent refused tattooing. The cost involved in tattooing the population was another factor to the failure of the program. In the end, some 60,000 adults and children in Lake County got tattooed with their blood type by the end of 1955, and a couple of thousand more in Cache and Rich counties in Utah. Many of these people, now in their seventies and eighties, still carry a feeble, barely legible, distorted mark on their bodies.

References:
# The use of blood-type tattoos during the Cold War, https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(07)02359-6/fulltext
# Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/sharp-needles-for-the-cold-war-yes-some-kids-got-tattooed-with-their-blood-type/2017/08/19/67e088c4-82b3-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html
# Indian Public Media, https://indianapublicmedia.org/news/some-hoosiers-carry-permanent-reminder-of-operation-tat-type.php
# conelrad.com, http://www.conelrad.com/atomicsecrets/secrets.php?secrets=11

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