Military Coins: The Challenge To Pride
Michalis "BIG Mike" Kotzakolios
This is the story of military coins, also known as challenge coins. These are tokens with the insignia of a military branch, squadron or some other unit of identification. Military coins were presented to soldiers by superiors or peers as far back as the Roman times, and even possibly during the British Boer War, in 1899. However, the history of military coins in the 20th and 21st centuries is worth repeating.
The story goes that even prior to the United States entering “The Great War to End all Wars” –World War I, many - often affluent, university students - would leave school to fight the Kaiser across the Atlantic. These brave young men were drawn to the allure of the battle that would change things forever.
One such fighter pilot paid a mint to create a dye and to cast coins with his squadron’s symbol on it. One was created for each man in the squadron and given to that man. It just so happened that the pilot who had these coins struck, or another comrade in his squadron (the stories vary), was shot down and captured by the Germans.
As a prisoner all of his possessions were taken, save for one thing: his squadron’s token, which he’d safely kept in a leather pouch on a chain around his neck. At one point, during an air raid, the pilot was able to escape his captors, and did so by going right into the hands of the French, who were patrolling the area for German saboteurs dressed as civilians. Having no identification on him, the pilot was unable to prove his nationality, and was on the verge of execution, when lo! A thought occurred to him, and he showed the French soldiers his challenge coin, which saved his life, and garnered him a bottle of wine, to boot.
This story of the military coins’ extreme helpfulness to the pilot spread quickly through the ranks of American soldiers. Soon members of other squadrons and battalions were minting their own military coins. These military coins acted not only as a reminder of the pride each service person held, but also acted as a form of identification between different military groups. In time, soldiers would pull out their token, hold it up, and demand to see that of others around him.
If anyone in the squadron (or at the table) in a bar were without his or her coin, that person bought a round of drinks, as does the challenger (ergo the term challenge coin), if everyone possesses their military coins. As well, with drinking being progressively discouraged amongst the ranks, the losers of such challenges now may find themselves serving everyone else a meal, polishing shoes, or some other task.
This tradition continues to this day throughout many countries and in every branch of the U.S. military, as well as many fire departments, paramedic units, and police units, amongst other groups. Hey, let’s see your challenge coin.