Of military excellence, affiliation and heraldry — the story of military coins

Most coins rarely warrant much attention. Sure, the recent proliferation of state quarters made collectors out of non-collectors, but the garden-variety coin usually finds a home in an automobile ashtray, underneath a sofa cushion or in a jar designed for savings.

To the acronym-inclined, the word “coin” may conjure up counterinsurgency measures or policies.

But when talking about military coins, challenge coins or award coins, a practice steeped in tradition comes to mind.

Commanders have been handing them out for years as a way to acknowledge a job well done. In the 1980s, this tangible “attaboy” boomed in popularity.

Now, nearly every organization and Army group has a coin used to acknowledge the good work of its members.

The coins vary in size (usually from 1 1/4 inches to 2 inches in diameter) and color (antiqued bronze, silver, gold). Some are colorful, some are not and some have plain edges while others have serrated or scalloped edges.

The unique nature of the military coin has spawned a collector’s market on the Internet, but no matter its appearance or reason for its ownership, the military coin is a steeped in tradition and, to some degree, folklore.

“Units have always had some mark of belonging to define themselves,” said Kelvin Crow, assistant command historian of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth. “It’s a sociological or psychological thing.”

Tracing the exact roots of the military challenge or award coin is difficult, said Jefferson Reed, who now serves as deputy curator for the Army in Atlanta Museum. He helped to develop an exhibit on challenge coins while at Fort Stewart, Ga.

“Regardless of the origins,” Reed said, “it is a phenomena that has swept all branches of the military, other government agencies, law enforcement and fire departments, government contractors and companies that serve the military like USAA (United Services Automobile Association).”

Behind Enemy Lines

Stories surrounding the historical birth of “challenge coins” in the military are as varied as the coins themselves.

The most widely reported, and earliest, story detailing the origins of the challenge coin comes from World War I. As the U.S. Army Air Service was developing its identity in air warfare, pilots from every walk of life stepped forward to join the effort.

Many of the pilots were wealthy Ivy Leaguers who were attracted to the world of fighter planes by their sense of adventure.

As the story goes, one such wealthy aviator used his resources to produce solid-bronze medallions that were plated in gold, stricken with the squadron’s insignia and handed out to other pilots in the squadron.

It may have been a saving grace for another pilot, who after being shot down over enemy lines was captured by the Germans. His identification and belongings were confiscated, but the squadron coin remained in his possession, cradled in a leather pouch hung from his neck.

During that same night, the British attacked the German camp, allowing the imprisoned American pilot to escape into the night. He made contact with a French patrol but lacked any identifying documents. Thinking him to be a German saboteur, the French prepared to execute him.

The pilot’s gold-plated coin gave them reason to pause, however, and after verifying its validity, the pilot was allowed to return to his unit.

Some believe the term “challenge coin” originated from this event. When the pilot returned to his squadron, it became tradition for members to carry their medallion at all times. If a pilot was challenged to show his medallion and could not produce it, he was commanded to buy the challenger a drink. If produced, the challenger owed the challenged a drink.

The story sounds plausible, but Crow thinks it sounds a bit too good or too convenient to be true.

“It sounds to me like an urban legend,” Crow said. “It sounds to me like something that was made up. There’s just enough data to give it plausibility, but not enough details to make them checkable.”

Crow does not say it’s not true, but he has his doubts. Attributions to its origin are scarce and the names of the pilots and others involved are not included.

Capt. Jim Harrington: Challenge coin mastermind?

If the story is true, the aviator was fortunate to have the coin in his possession that night. The fate of those that followed him was less grim – they were merely forced to buy a round of drinks.

During World War II, two derivations of challenges emerged: the pfennig check and the short snorter.

The pfennig check, a local German drinking tradition, may have been picked up by American Soldiers stationed there. The pfennig coin was the smallest of German currency in size and value and when someone announced a “pfennig check,” Soldiers were required to place a pfennig on the table. If they could not produce one, they were required to buy a round of drinks.

The short snorter tradition began with the Army Air Forces. Far-flying pilots would often congregate and share their tales of faraway places. To prove that their tales of their travels were true, pilots would accumulate local currency or banknotes and tape them all together, creating a string of international currency called a “short snorter.” Some even had people sign the bills in their short snorter.

Like the pfennig check, if a pilot could not produce his short snorter, he was required to buy his challenger a round.

These challenges served as a precursor to “The Jolly Sixpence Club,” a club started by Capt. Jim Harrington of the 107th Infantry, New York National Guard in 1954. Harrington and others in the group carried exotic or unusual coins and were required to produce them upon request. The rules were similar to the short snorter and pfennig checks.

In 1966, Harrington was stationed in Ethiopia with the National Guard 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and started a new tradition, building upon the groundwork laid by “The Jolly Sixpence Club.” The “Maria Theresa Thaler” was presented to deserving Soldiers as an award for their hard work.

In early 1999, Ronald E. Fischer wrote an article for “The Trading Post,” a publication by the American Society of Military Insignia Collectors. The article includes a 1990 letter written by Harrington to Fischer explaining the origin of the Maria Theresa Thaler award coin to Fischer.

“In my efforts within the C Detachment to fire up and maintain interest along with a lot of other things and remembering ‘The Jolly Sixpence Club,’ I started awarding Maria Theresa Thalers (MT) to deserving recipients in the detachment, as well as to other unit members.”

According to Harrington, the coins were minted in Austria and dated 1780. They were highly coveted and cherished by the Soldiers who received them.

The 10th Special Forces Group Challenge Coin

The challenge or award coin the military knows today serves the same purpose as Harrington’s Maria Theresa Thalers. They are morale boosters and tokens of acknowledgement. Individual unit coins began, by most accounts, in July 1969 during the Vietnam War.

According to a display at the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Headquarters, the challenge coin was designed by a member of the 10th SFG(A). Some attribute the design to Col. Verne Greene, commander of the group, who commissioned Robbins Co. of Attleboro, Mass., to mint the .999 fine silver coin.

The front of the coins featured the Trojan Horse insignia and the original Special Forces crest worn by the 10th SFG(A) in the 1950s. The inscription “10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 1st Special Forces” frames the top of the insignia. The words “Trojan Horse” are inscribed under the Trojan Horse.

The back of the coins featured a beret centered over a scroll, which served as an area for a person to inscribe their name, rank or applicable label. The top of the backside of the coin was inscribed with the Special Forces motto “De Oppresso Liber” (To free the oppressed), while the bottom of the backside is inscribed with “The Best.”

Like those who came before them, members of the 10th SFG were required to carry the coin at all times. Coin checks made certain of this.

The 10th SFG claims to be the only Army unit to have its own coin until the 1980s.

Fort Leavenworth coining

Regardless of its exact roots, the tradition of rewarding Soldiers and Department of Defense civilians with coins is alive and well. Today, coins serve as recognition for a job well done, a symbolic “attaboy” that can be collected and reminisced about.

Coins serve as morale boosters and bragging pieces that hold more weight, literally and figuratively, than a certificate or paper award.

“It is a way to tangibly pat a Soldier on the back and tell them that they’re part of the unit,” Crow said. “Everybody needs that.”

Col. Timothy Weathersbee, garrison commander, received his first coin as a lieutenant, acting as a special weapons security officer in a field artillery unit. He was recognized for the preparations that led to a positive inspection.

As garrison commander, Weathersbee is now responsible for handing out coins to people under his command. Coins are given to employees, Soldiers, volunteers, family members, community members and anyone else the commander deems worthy of acknowledgement for job excellence.

He said he views the coins as a big morale booster.

“What I like most about coins is that they can serve as an immediate acknowledgement of a job well done,” Weathersbee said. “Every time I have presented a coin, especially when the presentation is impromptu – when they don’t have time to get nervous about standing in front of a crowd – the recipient has responded in a very positive manner.”

Though regulations dictate who is authorized to purchase coins with unit funds, it is a relatively informal process to deciding who receives a coin. Supervisors or leadership often make the recommendation.

Fort Leavenworth’s Combined Arms Center Special Troops Battalion has two coins for distribution. The commander and the command sergeant major both have coins, which are presented for excellence and awarded at the discretion of the commander.

Lt. Col. Vincent Bryant, Special Troops Battalion commander, recalled his first coin, earned as a newly promoted second lieutenant. The coin was presented to him during his first hail and farewell ceremony in 1986 at Fort Campbell, Ky.

“It means a lot to be recognized when a commanding general gives you a coin,” Bryant said. “It’s always a good day when you get a coin.”

Reed and Crow both believe that the tradition of awarding coins grew popular in the mid- to late-1980s.

“When I was on active duty from 1982-85, I remember receiving a ‘Red Devil Chip’ while with the 5th Infantry Division,” Reed said. “It was nothing more than a poker chip with the division insignia printed on it. The Soldier could redeem the ‘Red Devil Chip’ for a four-day weekend, as I recall.”

Reed isn’t sure when and where the tradition of coining originated within the military. He has heard the stories and believes that they may all be independently responsible for the tradition.

“I think the only way to peg down the ‘true origin’ is to find a document that states someone wished to create a unit coin based on a particular tradition,” Reed said. “I have never seen such a document.”

Regardless of its origins, the military coin is here to stay. It’s a symbol of status, travel and accomplishments. And it makes for a pretty nice decoration.

“You’ll notice them as you go into people’s offices,” Crow said. “There will be this huge rack with hundreds of coins from all over the place. It’s sort of like collecting service stripes in a way, a way of saying, ‘Look at all the places I’ve been.’ “

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