Archive for the ‘Military’ Category

Modern Military Necessities

“Knock. Knock.”

If you are in a bar that sound is an invitation, not the beginning of a childish joke.

It is the sound of a specially-struck medal tapped on the bar or table. The invitation is for all other members of a special group, usually of military elites, to prove their personal membership by showing a similar medal.

Woe be to any member who does not produce a medal from his pocket. He has to pay for a round of drinks!

The democratic practice possessing such a medal has grown among American military until now they are embraced by every rank, right up the chain of command. Even the highest officials participate. Generals, admirals, the civilian Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  – even the President of the United States – each have their own “challenge coin.”

The “challenge” in the name is obvious even to a casual observer. Likewise “coin” might be obvious from their similarity to any monetary object. Perhaps a more apt designation is a “military pocket piece.” But they have become more than that and are as necessary a component of a military uniform as the owner’s dog-tags or dress blues.

Challenge coins are carried around the world. They are as prevalent on the battlefield as in the bar room. On the front line they are considered by their owners as the most powerful “good luck charm” they could carry into battle. They were prevalent in Desert Storm and current operations in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

They are also a powerful symbol of the military esprit-de-corps, the badge of membership in a special group, whether as few as a dozen-man unit or special force, or as wide as the entire U.S Navy. Or Army, or Air Force, or Marine Corps, or Coast Guard. Members of all forces have embraced this popular custom of carrying a metal memento as visible evidence of their participation, of their membership, of their belonging to a very special group.

Originated by military unit commanders who wished to increase morale, patriotism and unit spirit – and honor military service! – the medals are more likely created by those who will carry them. This, in contrast to medals of official nature, those designed by the Institute of Heraldry, intended to be worn as participation in military or naval campaigns, or awarded for heroic action, with formal ribbons and prescribed rules for display on a uniform.

Challenge coins are pocket pieces. Cloistered in a pocket until challenged to be brought to light. To declare “I am a member of a special unit.”

The custom has dramatically increased in the last quarter century of the 20th century and further blossomed in the 21st century. It has spread to become a military collectable. Individual members of a service may now order their own specially designed medal and distributed these to comrades, family and friends.

Exchanging and trading challenge coins has become the right of any service member and building a collection of these has proved popular. After all, such medallic memorials are permanent reminders of the people who served with you and shared your military activities. Their memory is enshrined forever in a challenge coin collection. Racks and display cases have been made just for housing such medals, particularly for growing collections.

An entire industry has been formed to produce challenge coins. Among a dozen companies creating these, the leading producer is Northwest Territorial Mint of Auburn, Washington. Affectionately called “NWT Mint,” this firm uses the most modern equipment with highly talented craftsmen to produce these cherished products.

Its staff designers transfer the ideas, images and inscriptions suggested by the client. After approval these are rendered into a steel die with the modulated relief to produce those images and inscriptions onto a metal blank. Unlike casting, employed by some of their competitors, NWT Mint’s die-struck medals bear sharp, detailed, bold relief.

Dies are cut, again on modern equipment. Two completed dies are mounted in hydraulic or coining presses. After striking the freshly minted medals are given a finish.

The greatest innovation in recent years is the application of color to the monochrome metal objects. Color is provided with enamels in a rainbow of hues. Colors are chosen for their obvious, or sometimes subtitle, symbolism. Blue is symbolic of Navy for example.

Each enamel color is applied with fine particles of colored glass beads to the medal surface with a hypodermic-like needle. It is then fired in an oven to melt and fuse in a hardened state, forever preserving the vibrant color. It they are to be gold or silver plated, this can be accomplished after enamelling, as the plating adheres to the metal but not the glass-like hard enamel.

Inspection follows to insure the client receives only as perfect specimens as modern minting technology provides. Thus challenge coins have ended their creation and only then are they proudly shipped to the client.

For ease of obtained a high-quality challenge coins, Northwest Territorial Mint has established a Military Coin Store in the Pentagon, located on the Concourse, next to Fort America. It is staffed with knowledgeable specialists who can assist with any aid necessary in designing a new challenge coin. Hundreds of examples are on view for idea inspiration.

Here you will view challenge coins in all colors, and significantly, in a variety of shapes. While circular is most popular – and most useful perhaps as a pocket piece – oval, flag-shape, shield-shape, dog-tag shape, triangular, diamond, and, not surprising, even in pentagon shape.

The variety is endless and a designer is limited only by his own inspiration and imagination. To their credit NWT Mint is capable of creating any challenge coin concept that can be suggested to them.

Try it!

Some pin the origin of this custom to a 1969 event in which the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborn), under the leadership of Col. Vernon E. Greene, who was its Commander that year. They issued a coin bearing a Trojan Horse as a fundraiser to help purchase a glass home for a handicaped German member.

This unit had non-U.S. citizens join its group. With so many nationalities on board, and varying proficiencies in English, the coin was created as a document to “identify guys in the unit without a whole lot of wrangling.” Such a coin was bona fide proof of membership.

Some think the custom first occurred in World War I, when a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions made with his squadron symbol on it.

He was assigned to a combat aircraft that was shot down in German territory. He was caught and stripped of all his identification – except for that medallion in a leather pouch hung around his neck.


Military Challenge Coins
Military Dog Tags


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Can the relationship between the Institute of Heraldry and the Medallic Art Company be described as “requited” – of mutual admiration and gratitude? The answer is a resounding “yes.”  Respect for each organization is the mantra for the other.

While the Institute of Heraldry (IoH) is a military organization, housed on a military base and headed by a military officer, it is staffed by nearly three dozen civilian employees. It services – of providing heraldic design and related symbolism for a variety of end products – exists for all military organizations, but also to all government branches as well.

Thus it might design a shoulder patch for dozen-man military unit in a far-off war theater in one instance and a revision of the presidential seal for the White House for another. Of all the many U.S. government agencies and organizations the IoH can be credited with a high level of creativity and efficiency. It performs its functions well.

The Chief Officer of the IoH, a military officer in one of the three branches of the service, has changed often in the twenty years I have observed the organization. A new chief is appointed as his predecessor’s tour of duty expires. Thus it retains its military management. The civilian staff remains intact for the most part and that retains its experience and knowledge of its heritage.

Of all the end products the IoH may design, those of most interest to Medallic Art Company are, of course, decorations, medals bestowed for meritorious service and often of exotic design; and campaign medals, given to all who participate in a given military or naval action, all of which have some accouterment for wearing, as on a uniform. In addition, the Medallic Art Company is also interested in what is ignobly called by military medalists “table medals,” – since you can’t wear this medal, it must lie on the table.

While the IoH maintains a “bid list” of slightly under one hundred American firms, companies who are certified to manufacture the military insignia the IoH designs, only a handful are capable of striking highly detailed decorations or the long production runs of campaign medals.

Medallic Art Company has a long history of producing military medals, but this was not so in its earliest years. Following World War I, a Victory Medal was required to be given to every person who was a member of any branch of service. Herbert Adams was appointed by the War Department to oversee the production of this medal.

The sculptor James Earle Fraser was chosen to design the medal. Fraser was a very picky artist and modified his design often, working over and revising his design. He had asked the Weil brothers, Henri and Felix, to make wax reductions and galvano casts of his design each time, then changing it again as he saw a way to improve the image.

This continued for a number of times, all of which the Weils did without any prior agreement of the cost, either with Fraser, or with Adams.  Once Fraser and Adams had agreed to the design, the Weils made hubs and dies, and struck sample medals. These all had to be turned over to the government.

By this time Clyde Curlee Trees had joined with the Weils. The trio drafted the specifications of how the medals were to be produced from the dies they had just created. The required number of medals was three million. They thought they had an inside track for the striking some of these medals. They would be happy with even a third of that contract.

Since they did not have the presses – nor the capacity – for such a production, Trees negotiated with Scovill in Waterbury, Connecticut, to do the striking, and Medallic Art Company would finish the medals, mount, and package them.

The trio came up with a quote of 75 cents apiece for such a quantity and daydreamed of the profits a million medals would generate for them. When the bids were opened they ranged from 17 cents each to over a dollar. The War Department awarded a million-medal contract to that 17-cent bidder, Aronson of Newark, New Jersey, and two other manufacturers “out west.”

While the trio were heartbroken over the loss of a contract they believed they had a lock on, they still had the invoice to submit for all those wax reductions, galvanos, hubs and dies. Henri and Felix came up with a modest cost.

It was Trees, however, who pushed the amount to $3,000. Trees submitted the bill. Immediately he was called to Adams’ studio. Felix went with Trees to meet Fraser and Adams there.

In Felix own words:  “To make a long story short, I must say that our secretary [Trees] convinced Adams and Fraser as to the propriety of the amount of the bill, which was duly paid.”

But that is not the end of the story. The quality of the 17-cent Aronson medals was so poor that in Felix’s mind, the government should never have accepted them.

True to that statement, Aronson never received another order for medals from the government. And, over time, the government came to realize the inherent medallic capabilities and quality of work of Medallic Art Company.

By the second World War, the company was well entrenched in this activity. The War Department ordered those World War I medals. By 1924 ordering medals was the responsibility of the Quartermaster General. It was the accelerated needs of World War II, however, that brought about the Army Heraldic Department, in place by 1949 and charged with furnishing heraldic services to all branches of military service.

Public Law 85-263, dated September 1957, ordered the Secretary of the Army to furnish heraldic services, not only to the military branches, but to all areas of the federal government. The Institute of Heraldry was established in 1960.

Over the years, Medallic Art would bid continuously for medal jobs initiated by the Institute of Heraldry. They remained on the bid list, and entered all those bids under the following:

Bid Number    E.I. #13-1030480

Gold License  TDGL 14-0152

Medallic Art was producing decorations and campaign medals long after World War II. The firm often ran three shifts around the clock. It rented space near the little shop on East 51st Street in midtown Manhattan to set up tables where ladies would sew ribbon drapes on campaign medals. I found one order in the files for three-quarters of a million medals in the late 1940s for delivery at specified dates over a six-month period.

All this made Clyde Trees a wealthy man. He set up a new firm, Chapline Realty Corporation, where he placed all the profits and purchased two buildings on East 45th Street in New York City, ultimately to became the firm’s plant, and residential property in White Plains, New York. He was also featured in an article in Fortune magazine!

Staff sculptor. A long list of medals is noted among the company’s archives for the Institute of Heraldry. But the staff sculptors at IoH are also listed there as well, for both IoH items and their own freelance medallic work. Most notable of these was Lewis J. King and Donald A. Borja, the later even created the 99th Issue of The Society of Medalists.

This writer visited the Institute of Heraldry with film producer Mike Craven on one of his trips to the East Coast. (Mike would fly in from California; we would rent a car and drive to potential film locations. On the week we filmed Elizabeth Jones for The Medal Maker, we visited the IoH. Mike had rented a very expensive film camera, but refused to leave it in the car as we entered the IoH building. He carried it with him the entire time!)

We met with sculptor Borja, and I interviewed him for my artists’ databank. His sculptor studio was down a long hall at the end of the building. What impressed me as a researcher even more was the Institute’s library between the studio and the offices. I could have spent a month in that library! I realized then the exceptional resources – both literary and personnel – that the Institute of Heraldry possessed.

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