Challenge coins or military coins present an important insignia to people working in the military. These medallions are used by various organizations and units to represent a stigma or identity. Challenge coins carry the emblem of an organization and they also connote ranks or recognition given by a unit commander to the members. They are usually custom coins which come in different designs and sizes. Like the usual coins, military coins have two faces and they can be customized in different shapes. But unlike the typical coins, they don’t equate to a currency or an amount.
There are several versions of the origin of challenge coins. Some people believe these medallions date back to the First World War while others think they made their first appearance in the Second World War. Here’s a short rundown of the different histories of the challenge coins.
World War I
The most popular story of the challenge coin goes back during the First World War. The newly assembled flying squadrons were filled with American military volunteers to join the war. Some of the participants came from renowned colleges such as Yale and Harvard, and they quit school to serve their country. One privileged officer ordered medallions in solid bronze and gave them to the members of his unit. A certain pilot from that squadron put the medallion in a small purse that he always carried around his neck. As they went on to battle, the squadron was shot down in Germany and the pilot was captured. The German patrol took all of the pilot’s credentials, leaving him without any valid proof of identification. The only thing that was left to the pilot was the leather pouch that held the medallion.
The German patrol took him to a French town where he planned his escape. He wore simple, civilian attire and successfully eluded the soldiers. He reached the French borderline and was eventually caught when the French taught he was a rebel spy. The pilot was sentenced for execution. In an attempt to prove his identity, the pilot flashed the medallion to his executors. One soldier identified the insignia which made French soldiers delay his execution. After confirming his identity, the pilot was sent back to his unit.
That’s how the tradition of medallions among members of a military unit started. All members of a unit were handed out medallions or military coins which they needed to have at all times.
The soldiers started playing games involving the medallions. One soldier would challenge another soldier to show his medallion. If the challenged soldier failed to show the challenger his medallion, then he was required to buy the challenger a drink. And same goes for the challenger. If a challenged soldier or the members of a unit could show him their medallions, he was entitled to buy them drinks of their choice. This tradition went on for many years among members of the military.
World War II
Another story about the challenge coins occurred during World War II. It was believed that medallions were used as “Bona Fides” to confirm a person’s identity during meetings and assemblies. The Office of Strategic Service used medallions to identify bona fide members of a unit from potential spy who want to infiltrate the assembly. They would ask members of the meeting the details of the medallions including the shape and the date on the coin.
Today, the use of military coins is common in almost every unit of service as well as non-military organizations. These challenge coins are now considered merits given to members to recognize morale and ranks. There are also some people who collect challenge coins just for the fun of it. Whether it’s an antique or a newly customized one, military coin definitely holds an important meaning to its bearer.