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Challenge Coin History

Challenge coins, used by the military as tools to build morale, as rewards for outstanding service and performance of duty have an interesting history and long-standing tradition.

 
President Bill Clinton's official portrait portrays his collection which he received from U.S. service members.

President Bill Clinton's official portrait portrays his collection which he received from U.S. service members.

Traditionally, challenge coins are used by the military as tools to build morale; as rewards for outstanding service and performance of duty. In recent years, they have become a way to show your loyalty and devotion anytime, anywhere. Their popularity has grown outside the military; within other organizations such as NASCAR, the Boy Scouts, Harley Davidson, World Series of Poker and many others. Police and fire departments have also taken on the tradition.

History

There are several stories detailing the origins of the challenge coin. According to the most common story, challenge coins originated during World War I. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were wealthy scions attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze and presented them to his unit. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he wore about his neck.

Shortly after acquiring the medallion, the pilots' aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a bombardment that night, he escaped. However, he was without personal identification. He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty, he crossed no-man's land.

The 17th Infantry Coin of Korea; one of the oldest challenge coins known.

The 17th Infantry Coin of Korea; one of the oldest challenge coins known.

Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Unfortunately, saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He had no identification to prove his allegiance, but he did have his leather pouch containing the medallion. He showed the medallion to his would-be executioners and one of his French captors recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine.

(Source: Wikipedia)