Challenge CoinsA challenge coin is a small coin or medallion given by the military to its members, bearing an organization’s insignia or emblem. They are given to prove membership when challenged, to provide a keepsake of the member's time in a unit or in a specific engagement, and to enhance morale.
Like many other aspects of military tradition, the origins of the challenge coin are a matter of much debate with little supporting evidence. While many organizations and services claim to have been the originators of the challenge coin, the most commonly held view is that the tradition began in the United States Army Air Service (a forerunner of the current United States Air Force).
Air warfare was a new phenomenon during World War I. When the army created flying squadrons they were manned with volunteer pilots from every walk of civilian life. While some of the early pilots came from working class or rural backgrounds, many were wealthy college students who withdrew from classes in the middle of the year, drawn by the adventure and romance of the new form of warfare.
As the legend goes, one such student, a wealthy lieutenant, ordered small, solid-bronze medallions (or coins) struck, which he then presented to the other pilots in his squadron as mementos of their service together. The coin was gold-plated, bore the squadron’s insignia, and was quite valuable. One of the pilots in the squadron, who had never owned anything like the coin, placed it in a leather pouch he wore around his neck for safekeeping. A short while later, this pilot’s aircraft was heavily damaged by ground fire (other sources claim it was an aerial dogfight), forcing him to land behind enemy lines and allowing him to be captured by the Germans. The Germans confiscated the personal belongings from his pockets, but they didn’t catch the leather pouch around his neck. On his way to a permanent prisoner of war facility, he was held overnight in a small German-held French village near the front. During the night, the town was bombarded by the British, creating enough confusion to allow the pilot to escape.
The pilot avoided German patrols by donning civilian attire, but all of his identification had been confiscated so he had no way to prove his identity. With great difficulty, he crept across no-man’s land and made contact with a French patrol. Unfortunately for him, the French had been on the lookout for German saboteurs dressed as civilians. The French mistook the American pilot for a German saboteur and immediately prepared to execute him. This challenge coin commemorates the imminent promotion of Marine Colonel Yurovich to CAG of CVW-9.
Desperate to prove his allegiance and without any identification, the pilot pulled out the challenge coin from his leather pouch and showed it to his French captors. One of the Frenchmen recognized the unit insignia on the coin and delayed the execution long enough to confirm the pilot’s identity.
Once the pilot safely returned to his squadron, it became a tradition for all members to carry their coin at all times. To ensure compliance, the pilots would challenge each other to produce the coin. If the challenged couldn’t produce the coin, he was required to buy a drink of choice for the challenger; if the challenged could produce the coin, the challenger would purchase the drink.
Another tradition about the origins of military challenge coins dates to US Military personnel assigned to occupy post World War Two Germany. With the exchange rate, the West German One Pfennig coin was worth only a fraction of a U.S. cent, and they were thus generally considered not having enough value to be worth keeping - unless one was broke. At any place where servicemen would gather for a beer, if a soldier called out "Pfennig Check" everyone had to empty their pockets to show if they were saving any West German Pfennigs. If a soldier could produce a Pfennig, it meant that he was nearly broke; and if a soldier could not produce a Pfennig, it meant that he had enough money to not bother saving them - thus enough money to buy the next round.
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.
President Bill Clinton displayed several racks of challenge coins, which had been given to him by U.S. servicemembers, 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. President George W. Bush received a challenge coin from a Marine combat patrol unit during his short but unexpected visit to Al-Asad Airbase in Anbar province, Iraq, Monday, Sept. 3, 2007.