Truth can be an elusive mistress. It seems that history itself can change with the flick of a pen or the tap of a key. When it comes to stories, especially flying stories, the truth seems to be the enemy of entertainment. For this reason, the “10% Rule” was established early on in the fighter pilot bar (any story told in the bar must contain at a minimum 10% truth.) I can attest to the fact that the “10% Rule” has been max-performed many times on a Friday night in the bar. I wish today that I could find the 100% truth to share with you regarding my topic, but alas, that truth has been through so many iterations of the “10% Rule” I’m afraid it is gone forever. The military challenge coin is steeped in tradition, but its history is distorted and convoluted.
Without all of the exact facts, and with several conflicting histories floating about in cyberspace, I will tell you the story of the challenge coin that I was told as a young, newly-winged 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. The story is based on the “facts” that were passed down with the tradition, but as with any story, it needs a little extra detail. The following is how the history of the challenge coin played out in my mind.
The “True” Legend of the Challenge Coin
A young American company-grade officer, whose name has long been forgotten, found himself alone at the controls of a British Sopwith Camel as the sun set over a raging ground battle in late summer of 1917. As with many of the pilots who had volunteered, our young 1st Lieutenant didn’t have much flying experience and quickly found himself disoriented as VFR conditions deteriorated with the waning light and the increasing smoke covering the battlefield. He had arrived in theater only a week earlier, a recent graduate from Yale University looking for excitement and the opportunity to serve in uniform. Upon his arrival, he was relieved to see the familiar face of a fraternity brother of his from Yale leading one of the flights in the squadron.
Prior to departing on this particular mission, our protagonist’s friend and flight commander presented him with a bronze medallion – the medallion was a token of his induction into the squadron. Our lieutenant promptly put the medallion in a leather bag, which he then hung about his neck with a leather cord, and prepared his aircraft for flight. His heart raced as the wheels left the ground, and rightly so – he hadn’t experienced the thrill of flight more than a handful of times, yet he was now being thrust into the throes combat.
Upon reaching contested airspace he was quickly separated from his flightmates. Wide-eyed, he strained his neck as he aggressively searched for his fellow airmen, and any enemy aircraft that might be rolling in to fire upon him. It was only a matter of time before this young man’s aircraft fell victim to ground artillery; something from which he thought he was immune as he circled the skies above the bloody fields below.
Desperately he tried to maintain control. He looked for an open field towards which he could maneuver his crippled Camel. A grassy meadow just beyond a hedge practically called out to him as he descended, against his will, into enemy territory. His wheels touched down hard, sinking into the soft ground causing his aircraft to flip over on its back, slamming the young pilot violently to the earth. As he regained consciousness, he found the muzzle of a German Mauser staring him in the face. He had been captured.
Now I’m not entirely sure what events took place over the next several days, but we now go to our young captive about a week after the crash, his body still bruised and aching from the impact. The Germans had taken everything from him, except the leather pouch hung about his neck. He sat crouched in a makeshift cell somewhere near the battle front; the burlap prisoner’s garb keeping any semblance of comfort from him.
Suddenly, the entire building shook violently as explosions rocked the compound. The young man’s heart lifted, for surely the Allies were assaulting the prison camp to rescue him! Several bomb-bursts eventually brought part of his building down, creating a gap in the exterior wall through which he quickly climbed. He emerged from the dilapidated building to find a scene of pure chaos. The bodies of German soldiers were strewn across the prison camp. The fence at the west end of the camp was down, and that’s where he ran. He breached the fence, but didn’t stop running, his adrenaline carrying as he literally ran for his life.
Hours later, our hero found himself weak from hunger. He couldn’t remember when he last ate, and his throat was parched from lack of water. He stumbled into a small farming settlement in search of sustenance. The French farmer who owned the farmstead met him with the barrel of a rifle. Our intrepid lieutenant thrust his arms skyward pleading in English, the only language he knew, for food and water. The French farmer was unfamiliar with the boy’s American accent and took him to be a German.
The young officer was bound thrown into the back of a wagon and taken through the dark French countryside. When horse and wagon stopped, the lieutenant was met by a mob of angry Frenchmen. You see, there were several German scouts in the area masquerading as British soldiers. When the farmer didn’t recognize the boy’s accent, he figured the boy was a German soldier and decided to take him to a gathering of freedom fighters to find out what to do. This angry mob decided execution was the best course of action.
As they tied our shaken hero to the firing post, one of the Frenchmen saw the leather bag beneath the lieutenant’s shirt. The bag was ripped from his neck and opened on the spot. The boy’s captor took the medallion from the bag and held it up in the torchlight. After a few seconds of scrutiny, the Frenchmen’s eyes lit up, and the boy was released! You see, the freedom fighter had recognized the squadron insignia emblazoned on the coin and knew right away the young man was no German. The medallion had literally saved the lieutenant’s life! Our hero was given a bottle of the finest wine they had on hand, and was soon returned to his squadron. Since that day, combat pilots have always carried a coin for good luck and thus the Challenge Coin was born.
Today’s Challenge Coin Tradition
(varies by military service…this is the Air Force’s)
Before you get into the tradition, you need a coin. You can obtain a coin in one of two ways: Be presented a coin by someone, or by procuring one yourself (I know, I just blew your mind.) The tradition can best be explained by laying down the ground rules: