WWII Challenge Coins
Challenge Coins were used in World War II by the “Office of Strategic Service personnel” or OSSP. The OSSP operated within Nazi-held French territory, making paper identification a sure death sentence if found. A coin would serve as easy identification without giving away a person’s true identity to enemy forces. The coins chosen would have specific aspects such as the date on the coin, etc. Infiltration was a significant concern when meeting by a spy. They would provide advance knowledge of the time and place of meetings with spies as well as the type of coin presented and other cues.
The Challenge Coin Tradition Carries On
The challenge coin tradition has carried on and spread — military units of all branches and even non-military organizations use them to this day. The United States Congress also uses challenge coins and gives them to constituents as souvenirs. Challenge coins are now issued within many Military Units when new members get assigned. The goal today is to coerce unity, as an award, or sold to commemorate a unit, special occasions, or as a fundraising item. The Air Force awards an airman’s coin to all new enlisted personnel on completion of Basic Training. New officers also receive their challenge coin after they complete the Air Force Officer Training School.
US Presidents Issue Challenge Coins
Presidential challenge coins became a thing in the late 1990s. The White House Communication Agency (WHCA) issues challenge coins to foreign and military leaders during Presidential visits. Controversy arose when the WHCA issued a coin that featured President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in 2018.
Bill Clinton has been known to have multiple display racks of challenge coins given to him by service members. The coins, once displayed in the oval office, are now on display in the Clinton Library. You can see the coins proudly displayed in the background of his presidential portrait, which hangs in the White House.
George W Bush was given a challenge coin from a Marine combat unit while visiting Anbar province, Iraq, in 2007.
Barack Obama reportedly handed out challenge coins to service members and would leave them on the graves of dead soldiers. On one coin exchange, he attempted to hand off a coin to a sergeant who dropped it. Obama picked it up, and they both had a good laugh afterward.
President Donald Trump broke with tradition. His coin omits the presidential seal and thirteen arrows representing the original states. He had his campaign slogan, Make America Great Again, stamped on both sides. It also has a banner at the bottom of the coin that double serves as a base that allows the coin to stand upright.
More on The Act of Challenging
Challenging is the most common way to make sure members are carrying their unit’s Challenge Coin. Rules about how a challenge works are not usually formal, and they vary. A challenge can only apply to members who received a coin from their unit. These procedural discrepancies sometimes lead to controversy (and bar fights) when a challenge gets initiated between members of different organizations. The tradition has become a source of morale within a unit, therefore forcing a challenge on others can cause a reverse effect. Challenging is often called a Coin Check and is often proudly announced very loudly.
A challenge can be initiated anytime and starts with a challenger slapping or placing their coin on a table or bar. When it is too loud to announce, rapping the challenge coin on a bar or table may also initiate a challenge. Even an accidental drop of a challenge coin is considered a challenge to everyone. Everyone subject to a challenge must show their Challenge Coin. Failing to present a Challenge Coin means buying a drink for the challenger and anyone else who shows their challenge coin. If everyone shows their Challenge Coin, the challenger has to buy a round of for everyone.
Most challenge rules permit a challenged person one step and to be able to reach for their coin. Additionally, if a person has more than one coin, they may pass it to someone close to them. However, putting a coin on a belt buckle or key ring is not accepted. However, a Challenge Coin worn around the neck is accepted and harkens back to the story from WWI.
Variants and Exceptions to Challenge Coin Rules
Here are some variants to the rules, some being pretty funny, such as the one that condones thievery. In this scenario, if someone steals a challenge coin, each person in that group is required to buy the thief a drink. In another method, rank is called out. During this type of challenge, everyone states the military rank of the person who gave them their coin. A coin given by an Admiral would beat a coin from a Vice Admiral. I feel sorry for any group that received a coin from a president, vice-president, or member of congress. I may also feel sorry for the person with the coin. By virtue, the challenge may have turned them into a raging alcoholic.
There are also rules against defacing a coin, especially to make it easier to carry. If a challenge coin is altered or has a hole drilled in it, it can likely no longer qualify as a challenge coin. However, if a coin sustains damage during combat, that coin is regarded as especially valuable.
My Own Challenge Coin
My Challenge coin was not awarded but purchased by a group of veterans from VC-5 to commemorate our service. Challenge coins have gone in and out of vogue over the years and are often regional. Where we were stationed, which was at Cupi Pt. Philippines, no one was exchanging them. VC-5 was known formally as Fleet Composite Squadron Five and we were an adversary and SAR squadron. We were unique in that we had A-4 Skyhawks for our adversary role. While we have Sikorsky SH-3G helicopters for SAR missions and for transporting troops, scientists and others around the region. I was stationed with VC-5 when Mt. Pinatubo blew its top in 1991. Our squadron was also instrumental in SAR rescues due to the volcano and various earthquakes and other disasters that struck the Philippines. The squadron was officially decommissioned in late 1992.