Challenge Coins - A Brief History
These special coins are called Challenge Coins and are widely used by all branches of the United States military as an award or as a means to identify membership in an organization or to recognize the special achievement of a military member. The majority of Challenge Coins are handed out by officers and senior enlisted members of military units, and also high ranking officials in command positions within the military.
While there are many differing stories about the origin of the Challenge Coin, many believe the tradition began during World War I in the United States Army Air Service, the current United States Air Force. When the Army created the first flying units they were mostly made up of volunteer pilots from various walks of life. While early pilots came from various places across the country, there was a large number of them that were wealthy Ivy League students that were drawn into the role by the fascination and adventure of flying.
As the legend goes, one of these very wealthy Ivy League lieutenants had a set of solid bronze medallions, or coins, minted to hand out as mementos to his fellow pilots as a memory of their service together. The coins were gold-plated and were quite valuable. One member of the squadron decided that he was going to always carry this gift and wore the coin around his neck in a pouch on his missions. This pilot was later shot down behind enemy lines and was captured by the German's where he was held as a prisoner of war in a small French town near the front lines. One evening while there was a bombing raid the pilot managed to escape the POW camp and elude the German forces until he was spotted by a French patrol looking for Germans. The pilot who had been stripped of all of his identification was taken by the French as a suspected German saboteur and was to be executed. Obviously desperate to prove he was an American pilot, the captured pilot pleaded with the French to no avail. Finally, the American pilot had one of the French soldiers look at the coin he had hidden, and luckily, one of the French soldiers recognized the insignia on the coin as an American squadron and he was sparred certain death.
Upon returning to his squadron, it became a tradition for all members to carry their unit coin. Pilots were often "challenged" by their officers to see if they did indeed have their coin on them. If they didn't, they were then required to buy a drink for the challenger. If the pilot did have his unit's coin on him, the challenger was to buy the drink.
This tradition spread to other military units in all branches of service and even to non military organizations. Today, Challenge Coins are given to members upon joining an organization, as an award to improve morale, and sold to commemorate special occasions or as fundraisers. They are unique and some coins are very valuable! President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of Challenge Coins, which had been given to him by members of the U.S. armed forces, on the credenza behind his Oval Office desk. These coins are currently on display at the Clinton Library. The challenge coins appear in the background of his official portrait, now hanging in the White House.
The popularity of challenge coins are now stretching even past the military. The National Football League, NASCAR, the World Series of Poker, public safety agencies, and fraternal organizations are jumping into the Challenge Coin game too.