The exact history of the US Military challenge coin is open to conjecture. Military challenge coins are the equivalent of a medal. Challenge coins might be presented for successful completion of a mission or to recognize outstanding performance of one’s duties. Challenge coins also symbolize unit pride.
World War I
One story credits an American lieutenant and aviator serving during World War 1 with creating the challenge coin. The story goes that the lieutenant whose name has apparently been lost to history had bronze coins minted to give to members of his squadron. After he was captured the Germans stripped the lieutenant of all his ID and personal effects except the bronze coin.
The lieutenant escaped and made his way to the French lines. Concerned that he was a saboteur the French were contemplating executing the lieutenant. One of the French soldiers recognized the unit symbol on the lieutenant’s coin and the lieutenant was spared.
Post World War 2 Germany
What would become the military coin challenge may have begun with the American Occupation Force in post World War 2 Germany. A German coin called the Pfenning was the equivalent of the American Penny. If a GI walked into a beer garden and could not produce a Pfenning on demand the drinks were on him. Later on, unit medallions replaced the Pfenning. If every soldier produced a unit medallion the drinks are on the soldier who issued the challenge.
During the Korean conflict, the 17th US Infantry Regiment was under the command of Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn. Quinn issued the men in his unit a unit coin. The sides of the coin featured a buffalo and the 17th infantry insignia.
Special forces groups serving in South East Asia modified coins to create challenge coins. They would stamp their unit emblem into one side of the coin. One account of the military coin challenge has the tradition beginning in Vietnam.
This story goes that an infantryman’s only bar had been established. To discourage non-infantrymen from visiting the bar a scheme was hatched to force them to buy drinks. Those seeking a drink had to prove they had been in combat.
In the beginning, men would present souvenirs like enemy bullets. For whatever reason men started bringing in explosive ordinance, as proof of having been in combat. To eliminate a potentially deadly practice unit coins became sufficient proof of being in the infantry.
Military challenge coins are a symbol of unit pride and accomplishment. The first US Military challenge coin may have been struck during World War 1. The challenge coin challenge either began in post World War 2 Germany or Vietnam.