While the question cannot be accurately answered, many wonder, “Did the military challenge coin originate during WWI or WWII?”  Be it fact or urban legend, one source for the military challenge coin does in fact date this tradition back to World War I.  The story involves a young wealthy college student who, like many young men from all walks of life, was drawn to the war when the Army began their flying squadrons.  The story says this young man had small gold-plated, bronze medallions struck bearing the insignia of their squadron.  He presented a coin to each of the pilots in his squadron as a token to commemorate their service together in the war.

The Armed Forces History Museum in Largo, FL has several unique military challenge coins on display in Salute to the Armed Forces area of the museum.  One of the most prestigious among this collection came from a 4 Star Admiral in charge of the U.S. Navy Pacific fleet. 

One of the pilots, after receiving this medallion, placed in a leather pouch he carried around his neck.  Within a brief period of time, this pilot was forced to land his aircraft behind enemy lines and was captured by the German’s.  He was stripped of all his personal belongings – including his ID. The Germans did not, however, take his leather pouch.  As he was escorted to a prisoner of war camp, an overnight stay in a French village secured by the Germans, gave him a much needed break.  That evening, the British attacked the town creating enough diversion, allowing him to escape.  He found civilian attire and was able to make his way across the country.  Once he finally made contact with the French, he still had no way to prove his identity.  With suspicion of German’s crossing the line as civilians, he was desperate to prove his identity to avoid execution.

A World War I Challenge Coin

The pilot remembered the coin in his pouch.  Once he revealed the coin, a Frenchman, who was familiar with the unit’s insignia, was able to delay the pilot’s execution until his identify was confirmed.  When the pilot was reunited with his squadron, the group decided the coins should be carried with them at all times.   In an effort to ensure this tradition, the pilots began challenging each other to produce their coin.  If the pilot challenged was unable to do so, he was required to buy a drink for the challenger.  However, if the pilot challenged was in fact able to produce the coin, the challenger was then required to buy the drink.

Whether this story is accurate or not, no one can dispute the significance of the challenge coin in the military.  Living through decades of war and military service, the coins are now sought after by military enlisted as a collector’s item.  Military challenge coins are not always given up easily, but the challenge some believe originates as far back as WWI, definitely continues to live on.

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