Where did the idea of Challenge Coins Comes From?

There are several accounts about the origin of challenge coins but no one knew for sure how and when exactly they came into existence. Some say it originated from the time when the Roman Empire ruled over a vast majority of lands. Some believe it started during World War I and others say it was during World War II. These coins are small and they look like medallions that bear the emblem or insignia of an organization.

Challenge CoinsThe members carry these coins with them. Challenge coins function as proofs of membership when the member is challenged and it helps boost a person’s morale. Service members collect them as well. In the military, when the member of the unit achieves an award or any special recognition, the commander will reward the member with a challenge coin. If an authority visits an organization, these coins were also presented to the person as a token of appreciation.

So when did it originate?

A.  Soldiers during the Roman Empire period were awarded with coins for their bravery and achievements.

B.  World War I: This account is the most common. Many people believe that challenge coins originated during the first world war when many affluent American volunteers from Harvard and Yale joined the military forces. One lieutenant from a prominent family ordered solid bronze-strucked medallions for the members of his unit and one pilot placed the medallion inside his small pouch and carried it around his neck. Soon after he got his medallion, his aircraft was damaged and he had no choice but to land behind the enemy’s territory.

The German patrols captured him and they took away all his belongings and identification except for the small pouch around his neck. On the night that he was taken to a French town, the young pilot managed to escape by disguising himself as a civilian. The only problem he had was how to identify himself because the Germans took all his identification. He escaped the Germans and found himself in the French territory. France was an ally of the Americans during that time. The French troops captured him and subjected him to be executed because they thought that he was a spy disguising as a civilian.

The young pilot pleaded for his life and denied the accusation. He said that he was one of them but the Germans took all his possessions so he cannot identify himself. He cannot prove his allegiance but he remembered the medallion inside his small pouch hanging around his neck. He showed it to them and one member recognized the medallion. He was then freed and his escape from the Germans was celebrated with wine and beer and merry-making.

Since then, it has become a tradition for everyone in his squadron to have a coin medallion and carry it around with them for identification. To ensure that everyone always has it, they will make a ‘challenge’ inspection. A challenger will ask the members to show their medallion anytime anywhere. Those who cannot show their medallion will treat the challenger to a few rounds of drinks. On the other hand, if everyone was able to show their medallion with them, the challenger will have to treat everyone for a few rounds of drinks. Such tradition continued for as long as the members survived even after the war.

C.  World War II: Others also believe that challenge coins started in World War II when Jim Harrington proposed the use of local coins “bona fides” for identification within the 107th Infantry Division. Each coin will have a specific date and type and was closely examined by each party. This way, a spy cannot easily infiltrate the unit.

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