Challenge coins are an intriguing collector item, with a curious history of good luck and solid friendship accompanying them. Some challenge coins are simply designed, while others are elaborately etched with carvings. Challenge coins are also known as military coins, airman coins, or military unit coins. Each challenge coin has its own story and unique history, but all start from the same beginnings.
There is a lot of debate as to where the first challenge coin was used, since military unit coins were not initially created by the military itself. However, most historians agree that the first challenge coin was created during World War I. During the First World War, the US Military asked for volunteers for a new airborne unit (called the United States Army Air Services, which became the United States Air Force in 1947). The novelty and excitement of air warfare prompted many students around the country to join up. According to common legend, one such student was a wealthy scholar who left his Ivy League school to learn to fly. He commissioned small, bronze coins to be minted, which were personalized with his airman division. He gave these coins out to his fellow airmen.
This generous fraternal gift may have passed unnoticed by all but his friends, except for a dramatic story that is told of one of his fellow airmen. The Germans, so the story goes, captured this airman, when his plane went down behind enemy lines. He kept his military coin in a leather pouch, strung around his neck. His coin somehow escaped notice by the Germans when they captured him; the Germans took all other identification from him. The airman was held as a prisoner that night in a small German town, close to the border of France.
That night, British bombers attacked the town. In the chaos of bombing, the airman managed to escape, wearing civilian clothes. He escaped across the border into France and made contact with a French patrol, which unfortunately had been recently ordered to shoot any German spies wearing civilian clothes who tried to pass themselves off as Americans or English. The French patrol thought he was a German spy. Without any identification, the airman was about to be executed when he produced his military unit coin, the gift from his fellow airman. One of the French troopers recognized the American Army insignia. They decided to put off the execution long enough to find out if his story was true. Once his identity was confirmed, he was passed along back to his unit. Since this time, it has been the tradition for all airmen to keep their challenge coin with them at all times.
Today, challenge coins are issued by: the United States Air Force (USAF), the US Marine Corps, the US Navy, the US Army, the Pentagon, the National Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the White House, Military Police, the US Department of Defense, and the US Military Command.