As often is the case with traditions, their origins can be traced to several different beginnings. There are several possible origins of the military tradition regarding challenge coins. This is just one of them.
This tale takes place during World War II. American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. They came from all walks of life, from the very poor to the very wealthy. Some were upper-class heirs attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit mid-term to join the war. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in solid bronze, emblazoned with the unit's insignia and then presented them to his company. One young pilot placed the medallion in a small leather pouch that he proudly wore about his neck.
Shortly after acquiring the medallions, the young pilot's aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire. He was forced to land behind enemy lines and was immediately captured by a German patrol. In order to discourage his escape, the Germans took all of his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. In the meantime, he was taken to a small French town near the front. Taking advantage of a bombardment one night, he escaped. However, he was still without personal identification.
He succeeded in avoiding German patrols by donning civilian attire and reached the front lines. With great difficulty he crossed no-man's land. Eventually, he stumbled onto a French outpost. Unfortunately, saboteurs had plagued the French in the sector. They sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a saboteur and made ready to execute him. He showed the medallion to his would-be-executioners and one of his French captures recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion. They delayed his execution long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him they gave him a bottle of wine. When he safely returned to his unit, they vowed to always keep their coin with them, as it was obviously more valuable than any of them had ever thought.
As time moved on, the American forces in WWII eventually adopted the coin recognition. The coin became a representation of a collective group rather than an individual recognition piece and was specially struck with the units' crest or insignia.
Today the coin is more than a souvenir trinket or "round calling card." It has maintained its value after over one hundred years of ritualistic practice; a practice of informally recognizing a military member's success and professionalism. It is still presented in a similar fashion involving the palmed coin handshake. But there's a little more definition behind the handshake now. Just as a ranking British officer shook the hand of a British soldier to thank him for his good deed, the coin today serves as a collective symbol representing all the US Armed services' core values: honor, respect, duty commitment, integrity, selfless service, service over self, excellence, loyalty and courage. These are often referred to as their conditions of employment.
The fire service has adopted this military tradition. As we are a militaristic organization we too find strength in our unity and confidence in our bonds. We also embrace the values which the coin and the tradition have come to represent for us: integrity, innovation, courage, courtesy, pride, loyalty, sincerity, selfless service and service above self.
The Palo Alto Fire Department gives these coins to our members because each one is devoted to service to the Department and embodies the values it represents. Always remember that this coin is given to the members of a group to signify pride, belonging and identification with that group. And only those accepted as a member of the group receive the coin. The next time you see a firefighter, ask them to see their coin.
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