Military Challenge Coins - Source of Dedication,
Pride and Bravery.
The Origin of Military Coins
The most commonly held view is that the tradition of the military coin 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 and manned them with volunteer pilots from every walk of civilian life. Most pilots were wealthy Ivy League students who were drawn by the adventure and romance of the new form of warfare.
One Ivy Leaguer, a wealthy lieutenant, ordered small, solid-bronze coins struck, which he then presented to the other pilots in his squadron as mementos of their service together. This military 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, 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 sneaked 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.
Just in time, he remembered his leather pouch containing
his military coin. He showed the coin to his would-be
executioners. His French captors recognized the squadron
insignia on the coin and delayed the execution
long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of
shooting him, they gave him a bottle of wine.
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.