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History Of The Military Challenge Coin.

Updated on January 23, 2012
USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6)
USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD-6) | Source

A fascinating story of how they came to be,

For years, I have been carrying a military challenge coin in my pocket. At military functions and parties, to be without one would mean having to buy a round for the bar.

But where did the tradition of carrying a military coin all start?

Well, there are a few back stories that I'd like to share and they are quite interesting to say the least!

First let's explain just what a challenge coin is. It's coin or medallion that depicts a military unit or organizations insignia or emblem. They are given to members of that unit to prove membership and when challenged by others to prove their assignment to that unit, they have to produce it immediately or face punishment of some sort. Usually by paying for a round of drinks at command functions. Over the years they have become highly prized and collected by service members the world over.



NBC News Story on the Challenge Coin

For some historians it all started way back in WWI. The newly formed Army Air Corps had just been formed and the new aircraft squadrons were mostly comprised of volunteers from all over the country.


One such volunteer was a wealthy officer who decided to have solid bronze medallions struck and given to his fellow fliers as mementos of their service together.


He had them made with gold plating and were quite valuable. One of the pilots who wasn't so well off as his fellow gift giver decided to keep his coin on his person at all times in a small leather pouch attached to a lanyard to hang around his neck. I supposed to ensure his coin didn't get lost.


Not too much later this fellow was involved in a dog fight and found himself shot down behind enemy lines and on the run.


Well he didn't get very far before he was captured by the Germans. They took all of his belongings except his necklace that had his squadron coin.

When he was being transported to a POW camp, the small town where he was being held at overnight became the target of an allied bombing raid which caused massive confusion giving the flyer the opportunity he needed to escape.

The pilot was able to evade German patrols by wearing civilian clothes but was eventually found by a French patrol. With no identification and not knowing how to speak French, he was just about on the verge of being shot.

Desperate to prove he wasn't a German spy his only saving grace was his military unit coin which he promptly produced. One of the French military members recognized the unit emblem emblazoned on the coin and halted the execution just long enough to verify the young pilots identity.

Once he returned to his squadron, he told the tale of his harrowing escape. Needless to say, his fellow pilots took to wearing their coins around their neck as well! To make sure they had their coins, the flyers started "challenging" each other to see if they had them in their possession. If not, the victim had to buy a round for the challenger. If he could produce the coin, it was the challenger who had to buy the drinks.




The Vietnam Version of the tale.

During the Vietnam conflict (many would rightly argue that it was a war), many young and superstitious warriors would take to carrying in their pocket a "lucky" piece of ordnance.

Many felt that if it was a bullet, that thing may have their name on it so better to keep it in your pocket than in the enemies magazine!

Over the years the size of the ordnance started growing. So much so that soldiers would try to out do each other by bringing mortar shells, hand grenades and other live high explosives into establishments that weren't real condusive to the safe handling of these "lucky" bits of ordnance.

Unit commanders, after having received word that their men where carrying large pieces of live ordnance naturally became concerned. After quickly banning the practice, commanding officers suggested to the senior NCO's that a much safer alternative was a command coin that the men could carry instead and the practice of carrying a coin took off.


There are other versions on just how the military challenge coin came to be but these two were my favorites. I've tried my best to never be without my coin because I've been on the losing side of a challenge.

Didn't have my coin at a Chief Petty Officer function back in San Diego one time and that was one expensive bar fine!

Many of my fellow Chiefs have taken up the hobby of collecting these coins. Many of them are very intracite with fine detail work that would make a jeweler proud. All of mine were given as gifts or as a swap coin when meeting a fellow service member.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of the Military Challenge Coin, head on over to the links I've provided.

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    • John J Gulley profile image
      Author

      John J Gulley 5 years ago from Wisconsin

      Great bit of history. I never knew about them. Thanks for sharing!

    • ThePelton profile image

      ThePelton 5 years ago from Martinsburg, WV USA

      Another military money related custom of world war two was the "Short Snorter". It was a piece of paper money, or a series of pieces of paper money taped together with the soldier's name and unit on it. He would also get other soldiers to sign it, thus the need for multiple bills. The could be of almost any source, just as long as there was space on them for a signature, and might contain more than a dozen different bills from a dozen different countries.