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A Brief History of Challenge Coins

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There are many examples of traditions that build camaraderie in the military, but few are as well-respected as the practice of carrying a challenge coin—a small medallion or token that signifies a person is a member of an organization. Even though challenge coins have broken into the civilian population, they're still a bit of a mystery for those outside the armed forces.

What Do Challenge Coins Look Like?

Typically, challenge coins are around 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter, and about 1/10-inch thick, but the styles and sizes vary wildly—some even come in unusual shapes like shields, pentagons, arrowheads, and dog tags. The coins are generally made of pewter, copper, or nickel, with a variety of finishes available (some limited edition coins are plated in gold). The designs can be simple—an engraving of the organization's insignia and motto—or have enamel highlights, multi-dimensional designs, and cut outs.

Challenge Coin Origins

It's nearly impossible to definitively know why and where the tradition of challenge coins began. One thing is certain: Coins and military service go back a lot farther than our modern age.

One of the earliest known examples of an enlisted soldier being monetarily rewarded for valor took place in Ancient Rome. If a soldier performed well in battle that day, he would receive his typical day’s pay, and a separate coin as a bonus. Some accounts say that the coin was specially minted with a mark of the legion from which it came, prompting some men to hold on to their coins as a memento, rather than spend them on women and wine.

Today, the use of coins in the military is much more nuanced. While many coins are still handed out as tokens of appreciation for a job well done, especially for those serving as part of a military operation, some administrators exchange them almost like business cards or autographs they can add to a collection. There are also coins that a soldier can use like an ID badge to prove they served with a particular unit. Still other coins are handed out to civilians for publicity, or even sold as a fund-raising tool.

The First Official Challenge Coin…Maybe

Although no one is certain how challenge coins came to be, one story dates back to World War I, when a wealthy officer had bronze medallions struck with the flying squadron’s insignia to give to his men. Shortly after, one of the young flying aces was shot down over Germany and captured. The Germans took everything on his person except the small leather pouch he wore around his neck that happened to contain his medallion.

The pilot escaped and made his way to France. But the French believed he was a spy, and sentenced him to execution. In an effort to prove his identity, the pilot presented the medallion. A French soldier happened to recognize the insignia and the execution was delayed. The French confirmed his identity and sent him back to his unit.

One of the earliest challenge coins was minted by Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, who had them made for his men during the Korean War. The coin features a buffalo on one side as a nod to its creator, and the Regiment’s insignia on the other side. A hole was drilled in the top so the men could wear it around their necks, instead of in a leather pouch.

The Challenge

Stories say that the challenge began in Germany after World War II. Americans stationed there took up the local tradition of conducting “pfennig checks.” The pfennig was the lowest denomination of coin in Germany, and if you didn’t have one when a check was called, you were stuck buying the beers. This evolved from a pfenning to a unit’s medallion, and members would "challenge" each other by slamming a medallion down on the bar. If any member present didn’t have his medallion, he had to buy a drink for the challenger and for anyone else that had their coin. If all the other members had their medallions, the challenger had to buy everyone drinks.

The Secret Handshake

In June 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates toured military bases in Afghanistan before his impending retirement. Along the way, he shook hands with dozens of men and women in the Armed Forces in what, to the naked eye, appeared to be a simple exchange of respect. It was, in fact, a secret handshake with a surprise inside for the recipient—a special Secretary of Defense challenge coin.

Not all challenge coins are passed by secret handshake, but it has become a tradition that many uphold. It could have its origins in the Second Boer War, fought between the British and South African colonists at the turn of the 20th century. The British hired many soldiers of fortune for the conflict, who, due to their mercenary status, were unable to earn medals of valor. It was not unusual, though, for the commanding officer of those mercenaries to receive the accommodation instead. Stories say that non-commissioned officers would often sneak into the tent of an unjustly awarded officer and cut the medal from the ribbon. Then, in a public ceremony, they would call the deserving mercenary forward and, palming the medal, shake his hand, passing it to the soldier as a way of indirectly thanking him for his service.

Special Forces Coins

Challenge coins began to catch on during the Vietnam War. The first coins from this era were created by either the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were little more than common currency with the unit’s insignia stamped on one side, but the men in the unit carried them with pride.

More importantly, though, it was a lot safer than the alternative—bullet clubs, whose members carried a single unused bullet at all times. Many of these bullets were given as a reward for surviving a mission, with the idea that it was now a “last resort bullet,” to be used on yourself instead of surrendering if defeat seemed imminent. Of course carrying a bullet was little more than a show of machismo, so what started off as handgun or M16 rounds, soon escalated to .50 caliber bullets, anti-aircraft rounds, and even artillery shells in an effort to one-up each other.

Unfortunately, when these bullet club members presented “The Challenge” to each other in bars, it meant they were slamming live ammunition down on the table. Worried that a deadly accident might occur, command banned the ordnance, and replaced it with limited edition Special Forces coins instead. Soon nearly every unit had their own coin, and some even minted commemorative coins for especially hard-fought battles to hand out to those who lived to tell the tale.

President (and Vice President) Challenge Coins

Starting with Bill Clinton, every president has had his own challenge coin and, since Dick Cheney, the vice president has had one, too.

There are usually a few different Presidential coins—one for the inauguration, one that commemorates his administration, and one available to the general public, often in gift shops or online. But there's one special, official presidential coin that can only be received by shaking the hand of the most powerful man in the world. As you can probably guess, this is the rarest and most sought-after of all challenge coins.

The President can hand out a coin at his own discretion, but they are usually reserved for special occasions, military personnel, or foreign dignitaries. It’s been said that George W. Bush reserved his coins for injured soldiers coming back from the Middle East. President Obama hands them out fairly often, most notably to soldiers that man the stairs on Air Force One.

Beyond the Military

Challenge coins are now being used by many different organizations. In the federal government, everyone from Secret Service agents to White House staff to the President's personal valets have their own coins. Probably the coolest coins are those for White House Military Aides—the people who carry the atomic football—whose coins are, naturally, in the shape of a football.

However, thanks in part to custom coin companies online, everyone’s getting in on the tradition. Today, it’s not uncommon for police and fire departments to have coins, as do many civic organizations, such as the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts. Even the Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion, Harley Davidson riders, and Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have become a long-lasting, highly-collectible way to show your allegiance anytime, anyplace.

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History
Civilian Researchers Discover Wreckage of the USS Indianapolis
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On July 30, 1945, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sank in the Pacific Ocean after it was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58. More than 70 years after the historic naval tragedy— which claimed the lives of nearly 900 crew—The New York Times reports that the ship’s mysterious final resting place has been found.

The discovery came courtesy of a team of civilian researchers, led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. His state-of-the-art research vessel, Petrel, located the wreck 18,000 feet below the Pacific’s surface, the team announced on Saturday, August 19.

"To be able to honor the brave men of the USS Indianapolis and their families through the discovery of a ship that played such a significant role in ending World War II is truly humbling,” Allen said in a statement. “As Americans, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the crew for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice in the face of horrendous circumstances."

Before it sank, the USS Indianapolis had just completed a top-secret mission to a naval base on the Northern Mariana island of Tinian. After delivering enriched uranium and components for Little Boy— the atomic bomb that the U.S. would drop on the Japanese city of Hiroshima about a week later—the cruiser forged ahead to Guam, and then to the Philippines. It was supposed to meet the battleship USS Idaho at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to prepare to attack Japan.

The USS Indianapolis never made it to Leyte Gulf. Shortly after midnight on July 30, the Japanese submarine I-58 spotted the cruiser and fired six torpedoes. The USS Indianapolis—which was hit twice—sank within 12 minutes. Around 300 to 400 sailors and Marines were killed in the attack; the rest were stranded in the Pacific Ocean for several days.

Many of these survivors would ultimately lose their lives to sharks, a grisly scene that would be famously (albeit semi-accurately) recounted in the 1975 movie Jaws. Others died from drowning, heat stroke, thirst, burns and injuries, swallowing salt water or fuel oil, and suicide. More than 300 crew members were rescued after a bomber pilot accidently sighted the imperiled men while on a routine antisubmarine patrol.

The mass tragedy—which wouldn’t be announced to the public until August 15, 1945—sparked controversy: Charles B. McVay III, captain of the USS Indianapolis, was found guilty in a court martial of failing to steer the ship on a “zigzag” course to elude Japanese submarines. A Japanese submarine captain testified that this precautionary measure wouldn’t have thwarted the enemy, but McVay was charged nonetheless. The captain died by suicide in 1968, and wouldn’t be officially exonerated by the Navy until 2001.

For decades, the remains of the USS Indianapolis were lost to the ravages of time and nature. But in 2016, naval historian Richard Hulver found a historic ship log that mentioned a sighting of the USS Indianapolis. Allen’s search team used this information to locate the ship, which was west of where experts assumed it had gone down.

Allen’s crew took pictures of the wreckage, including a piece of its hull, and will search for more of the ship. They plan to keep the exact location of the USS Indianapolis a secret, however, to honor the sunken ship as a war grave.

"While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said.

[h/t The New York Times]

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entertainment
The Time That Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Opened Competing Restaurants on the Sunset Strip
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From 1946 to 1956, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were show business supernovas. With an act that combined singing, slapstick, and spontaneous hijinks, the duo sold out nightclubs coast to coast, then went on to conquer radio, television, and film. Long before Elvis and The Beatles came along, Dean and Jerry  were rock stars of comedy.

Offstage, there was a cordial but cool friendship between the laidback Martin and the more neurotic Lewis. But as the pressures of their success increased, so did the tensions between them. Martin grew tired of playing the bland romantic straight man to Lewis’s manic monkey boy. And when Lewis started to grab more headlines and write himself bigger parts in their movies, Martin decided to quit the act. In an angry moment, he told Lewis that he was “nothing to me but a f**king dollar sign.”

After the split, both men went on with their individual careers, though it took Martin a few years before he regained his footing. One of his ventures during that transitional period was a Hollywood eatery called Dino’s Lodge.

DINO'S LODGE

In the summer of 1958, Martin and his business partner, Maury Samuels, bought a controlling interest in a restaurant called The Alpine Lodge, at 8524 Sunset Boulevard. They hired Dean’s brother Bill to manage the place, and renamed it Dino’s Lodge.

Outside they put up a large neon sign, a likeness of Dean’s face. The sign turned into a national symbol of hip and cool, thanks to appearances on TV shows like Dragnet, The Andy Griffith Show, and most prominently, in the opening credits of 77 Sunset Strip.

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Dino’s Lodge was popular from the get-go, serving home-style Italian food and steaks in an intimate, candlelit, wood-paneled room meant to replicate Martin’s own den. In the first year, Dean himself frequented the place, signing autographs and posing for photos with starstruck diners. He also occasionally brought along famous friends like Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. To promote the idea of the swingin’ lifestyle that Martin often sang about, Dino’s served “an early morning breakfast from 1 to 5 a.m.” The restaurant also had a lounge that featured singers, though only females. Dean apparently didn’t want any male vocalists encroaching on his turf.

But as with many a celebrity venture into the food business, this one soon turned sour. And most of that was due to the jealousy of Jerry Lewis.

JERRY'S

In late 1961, Lewis wooed Martin’s business partner Maury Samuels away, ponied up some $350,000, and opened his own copycat restaurant three blocks down Sunset. It was called Jerry’s. To make it clear he was out for top billing, Lewis had his own likeness rendered in neon, then mounted it on a revolving pole 100 feet above his restaurant. In contrast to Dino’s Italian-based menu, Jerry’s would serve “American and Hebrew viands.” Lewis didn’t stop there. Within a few months, he’d hired away Dino’s top two chefs, his maître d', and half his waitstaff.

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When Lewis was in Los Angeles, he made of point of table-hopping and schmoozing with his guests at his restaurant, and he occasionally brought in a few of his celebrity friends, like Peggy Lee and Steve McQueen.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

By the following year, a disgusted Dean Martin was fed up with the restaurant business and cut ties with Dino’s Lodge. Much to his aggravation, he lost a motion in court to have his likeness and name removed from the sign. So the new owners carried on as Dino’s Lodge, with the big neon head staring down on Sunset for another decade before the place finally went bust.

Jerry’s lost steam long before that, folding in the mid-1960s.

For the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Martin and Lewis avoided each other. “Jerry’s trying hard to be a director,” Dean once told a reporter. “He couldn’t even direct traffic.”

In 1976, Frank Sinatra famously engineered an onstage reunion of the pair during The Jerry Lewis Telethon. While the audience roared their approval, Sinatra said, “I think it’s about time, don’t you?” And to Sinatra, Lewis said under his breath, “You son of a bitch.”

What followed was an awkward few moments of shtick between the former partners. Reportedly, Martin was drunk and Lewis was doped up on painkillers. There was a quick embrace, Martin sang with Sinatra, then blew Lewis a kiss and disappeared from his life for good. Martin died in 1995. Lewis passed away today, at the age of 91.

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