Challenge coins pass on heritage, history of Marine Corps
CAMP HANSEN, OKINAWA, Japan — Challenge coins are minted military coins embossed with a unit's insignia and commander's billet and are often given to service members by commanders to boost morale and honor service.
7/3/2008 By Lance Cpl. Joseph A. Cabrera, III Marine Expeditionary Force
During a two-day visit to Okinawa by Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway and Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Carlton W. Kent, several Marines from various units received challenge coins in recognition of outstanding work performance.
"It is a great sign of accomplishment," said Lance Cpl. Leenard Benologa, a supply administration clerk with Combat Logistics Regiment 35.
Benologa, like many others, received a challenge coin from the commandant.
"I think it's a huge honor," said Cpl. Jill Allred, a Marine Corps integrated maintenance management system specialist with CLR 35. "It's pretty cool to get the highest one."
The origin of the tradition cannot be traced to a specific time and place. There are several stories about how the tradition of challenge coins came into existence, some dating back to World War I.
In one story, according to a 2005 article "History of the Challenge Coin," written by Cpl. Wil Acosta and published on Marine Corps News, during World War I, members of one American flying squadron received unit medallions embossed with the unit's insignia from their commander. One of the unit's pilots kept the medallion in a leather pouch worn around his neck.
While flying a mission, his plane was shot down by German forces, and he was captured. To discourage the pilot from tying to escape, the Germans took the pilot's identification.
While en route to a prisoner of war camp, the pilot did manage to escape. He dressed in civilian attire to evade capture by the Germans.
The pilot was later found by French troops who had recently been advised to watch for German soldiers dressed in civilian attire. Unable to prove his identity, the pilot faced certain death. His life was spared, however, when the insignia on the unit medallion was recognized as an American flying squadron.
Instead of executing the American pilot, they gave him a bottle of wine. After hearing of the pilot's story, service members began carrying the medallion, and when challenged, any member not in possession of the medallion would have to buy the challenger a drink.
In another story, according to http://www.globalsecurity.org, the tradition of challenge coins may have originated during the Vietnam War. Service members with free time would indulge in a variety of activities, to include drinking at bars.
They formed what was called bullet clubs. Service members on the front lines often carried a separate bullet to use on themselves to avoid being captured by the enemy.
While in the bar, the service members would often challenge each other to see who was carrying that extra round of ammunition.
Anyone who could not produce the round bought drinks the rest of the night. If the challenged person was able to produce the round then his bar tab would be covered by the challenger.
Service members began bringing larger caliber rounds to the bars as a sign of machismo, even cannon and artillery munitions. To avoid the accidental discharge of the ordnance, bullets were replaced with coins bearing the units insignia.
Today, the tradition of using the coins to challenge one another is familiar to many Marines, yet is not commonly witnessed.
For Capt. Edward McDonough, the commanding officer of Headquarters Battery, 3rd Bn., 12th Marines, the coins hold a different value - sentimental. His collection is a reminder of former units and friends.
"It is so you can remember the Marines to your right and left, and the guys you served with," he said.