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Challenge Coin History traces its beginning as far back as the Roman Empire
Where coins were struck for each unit as a means of indentifying themselves to others and amongst themselves.
More recent challenge coin history starts in WWI
During world war one American soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed overseas often carried a Phennig coin which was the smallest denomination of German currency. When out at the pub and a member of a military unit called for a "phenig check", if you were caught without one in your pocket you had to buy the round of drinks.
Challenge coins became popular when a wealthy Lieutenant had coins made for all his men and gave each of them one to carry as a way of demonstrating the Corp De espree. He was later forced to land behind enemy lines in France he was captured and stripped of all his personal belongings except for a small leather pouch around his neck which had his coin in it.
During that night he took advantage of the bombardment and escaped into the french countryside. He found himself trying to look like a local so he donned farmers clothes he found in a barn. He worked his way upto the front lines. He was soon recaptured by French resistance forces who thought he was a German spy. He had no means of conviencing his captures that he was really an American airman who had been shot down.
He was about to be executed when he remembered he still had his unit US Military challenge coin in the leather pouch around his neck. Once he showed that military coin he was accepted by the locals and given food and wine.