A challenge coin, also endearingly known as a round medal object, bears an organization’s insignia and is presented by commanders to a member of the unit to recognize special achievement.
The Air Force challenge coin tradition is long-standing and is known throughout all specialties, and to all ranks.
“While some dispute when the services started issuing of unit pins and medallions, it is known that the Army Air Service minted and provided emblem medallions. The medallions that still exist are quite valuable to collectors.” said Gary Boyd, Air Education and Training Command Historian.
According to Boyd, the earliest extant examples of what could be considered a challenge coin were medals presented by the Aero Club of America to a few pioneering Airmen, once they completed flying training. The club wanted to provide them to every flyer, but the vast number of new pilots made it impossible once training started to truly take off.
There are several stories regarding the origins of the challenge coin. The most common challenge coin story, according to an article by Cpl. Wil Acosta, depicts an American who volunteered to fly during World War I. The wealthy lieutenant ordered solid bronze medallions imprinted with the squadron emblem for every member of his squadron. Examples of these squadron medallions still exist.
Sometime after the medallions were distributed, the lieutenant’s aircraft was severely damaged during a mission, forcing him to land in enemy territory. He was shortly captured by a German patrol that took most of his personal identification except for his medallion.
He was transported near the front lines where he was able to escape and reach a French outpost.
The French military members were skeptical of this young American pilot who had no identification. The lieutenant presented his medallion to the French military members, who recognized the insignia.
The French gave the lieutenant a bottle of wine once he was able to confirm his identity.
Once the lieutenant was able to make it back to his squadron, it instantly became a tradition to ensure all members carried their medallion at all times.
To ensure compliance to this new tradition, anyone could request to see the coin. If the member could show their coin, the challenger was required to purchase a drink for the challenged member. If the member was unable to show his coin, they would have to buy a drink for the challenger.
Another account to the international origin of the challenge coin, told by Col. Rob Lyman, Director of Communications of Air Mobility Command, describes how an officer would work with the senior enlisted member of the unit to give a new sixpence, a former British currency coin worth six pennies, to a deserving soldier. This reward was given with a strong handshake, much like how commander’s coins are presented today.
Boyd claims the tradition of challenge coins did not become popular until after the Korean War.
Coins are as unique as the units that present them and vary in meaning to each individual who receives them. The military challenge coin has varying accounts of its origins, yet remains a staple in military traditions.