Butch Maisel speaks with students at the museum at The Boys' Latin School of Maryland in Baltimore.

He's on a mission to return dog tags found in a war zone to families. Here's what inspires him

Updated 7:54 AM ET, Fri November 12, 2021

(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.
Pvt. Pete Cook's dog tag
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.
Pfc. Mack "Bill" Church
"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.
Pete Cook joined the US Army in the months ahead of Pearl Harbor.
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.
Marion Dixon Cook wore her son's Purple Heart on her jacket to memorial events.