The history of the challenge coin, built on a legend

  • Published
  • By Randy Saunders
  • 50th Space Wing Historian
Throughout my many years as an Air Force historian, I've heard a number of stories about how the challenge coin came to be. The Roman Empire presented coins to honor exceptional service similar to today's military and civilian medals. Stories of American servicemen carrying special coins to remember home while serving far away date back to the Civil War. Other stories trace the tradition to U.S. military personnel serving in Germany following World War II. However, there is one story on the beginnings of the challenge coin that is arguably the most popular and well-known.

As the United States built up its armed forces, especially its air units, during World War I, young men from across America volunteered to serve. Some of these volunteers were wealthy. Some quit attending prestigious colleges such as Harvard and Yale to serve in the Air Service. Among these wealthy young men, one new lieutenant ordered medallions struck in bronze and presented them to members of his unit. One recipient placed this medallion in a small leather pouch he wore tied around his neck.

On a mission soon after receiving the medallion, this pilot's aircraft was badly damaged by ground fire. The damage forced a landing behind enemy lines and he was shortly captured by a German patrol. To discourage escape, his captors confiscated all of this personal identification, leaving the small pouch. The Germans took the pilot to a small French town, near the front. During a bombardment that night, the pilot managed to escape. However, he lacked any identification.

Donning stolen civilian clothes and with great difficulty, he crossed the "no man's land" and reached the front lines. Eventually, he stumbled into a French outpost. Unfortunately, saboteurs dressed as civilians had been harassing the French in this sector and the French manning the outpost did not recognize his American accent. Thinking him to be a saboteur, they detained him with the intent of executing him as a saboteur. Lacking identification, the young pilot remembered his medallion. One of the French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion, which bought him enough time for the French to confirm his identity. Instead of an execution, he was given a bottle of wine. Upon return to his squadron, it became tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin at all times.

Challenge coins have been an American military tradition for nearly a century. In units around the world, and perhaps more so at deployed locations, personnel of the U.S. Armed Forces carry, collect and trade unit challenge coins. More than an interesting tradition, built just a little on legend, challenge coins signify exemplary service, shared sacrifice, and unit espirit. You'll find challenge coins carried by Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen.

Remember, a coin challenge can be initiated at any time. Don't leave home without it.