Metro-East Living

Yes sir, that fifth star designation is a rare U.S. military rank

U.S. Army General George Marshall wears the five stars in the shape of a pentagon on his left shoulder. The rank General of the Army was bestowed on him Dec. 16, 1944.
U.S. Army General George Marshall wears the five stars in the shape of a pentagon on his left shoulder. The rank General of the Army was bestowed on him Dec. 16, 1944.

Q: A four-star general is called a general. What do we call a five-star general? We’ve only had a few of then in our history, and no one I’ve talked to knows what to call them.

F.B., of O’Fallon

A: If you were a soldier, sailor or aviator, you’d say “sir” — and a whole lot more.

Nobody currently holds the rank in any service, but if anyone did, this is what you would officially call him or her: In the Army, it would be General of the Army. In the Air Force, it’s General of the Air Force. And in the Navy, it would be Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy. (There is no equivalent rank in the Marines, Coast Guard, Public Health Service Commissioned Corps or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps.)

That fifth star was an honor that blossomed late in World War II — and it was a long time coming. On July 25, 1866, Congress bestowed the rank of “general of the Army of the United States” on Civil War hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. It gave him a salary boost to “$400 per month, and his allowance for fuel and quarters” except “when his headquarters are in Washington, shall be at the rate of $300 per month,” according to General Orders No. 52. After the appointment, Grant wore four stars and coat buttons arranged in three groups of four. It offered the power and authority of the rank of “general of the armies,” which had been proposed but never used back in 1799.

But the rank soon lost its luster. After Grant became president in 1869, he was succeeded as General of the Army by another Civil War legend, William T. Sherman, who, in 1872, ordered his insignia changed to just two stars with the U.S. coat of arms in between. And, when Philip Sheridan, the third man to hold the rank, died on Aug. 5, 1888, the rank died with him for more than a half-century.

But as leadership demands escalated after the June 1944 D-Day invasion, Congress on Dec. 14, 1944, passed Public Law 78-482, which again created the rank of General of the Army along with its naval equivalent, fleet admiral. Initially the rank was given temporarily, but Congress declared it permanent on March 23, 1946, awarding full pay and allowances to those on the retired list. (It reportedly also was created to give the top American commanders equal rank with foreign field marshals and fleet admirals serving with them.

So far, five men have worn the official insignia, which consists of five stars grouped in a pentagon shape with points touching. They and the dates the rank was bestowed are George Marshall (Dec. 16, 1944), Douglas MacArthur (Dec. 18, 1944), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Dec. 20, 1944), Henry H. Arnold (Dec. 21, 1944) and, six years later, Omar Bradley (Sept. 22, 1950). Although the rank could still be given, no one has held it since Bradley died April 8, 1981. It likely would be awarded again only in a time of war when a U.S. commander needed a rank equal to or higher than a foreign commander who was under his control. However, the president, with the consent of the Senate, has the option of awarding it at any time.

At the same time those first four men were being bumped up to General of the Army, three more were named as the equivalent fleet admiral of the U.S. Navy. This, too, was a long process. It wasn’t until the Civil War when David Farragut became the Navy’s very first admiral and was succeeded by David Dixon Porter. After they died, the Navy’s highest rank was rear admiral until Admiral of the Navy was finally created for George Dewey in 1903 after his decisive victory in the Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War.

After Dewey died in 1917, his special rank was discontinued, too, until 1944, when Congress decided the U.S. needed to give some of its officers a rank at least equal to those of allied nations. So, also on Dec. 14, 1944, it created the rank of fleet admiral, which has been held by only four men in the country’s history: William Leahy (Dec. 15, 1944), Ernest King (Dec. 17, 1944), Chester Nimitz (Dec. 19, 1944) and William Halsey Jr. (Dec. 11, 1945). But like the Army’s Bradley, after Nimitz died on Feb. 20, 1966, the rank has been in mothballs ever since.

Which leaves one final story: Officially, Henry “Hap” Arnold was a General of the Army, but since he headed the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was unofficially called General of the Air Force when he was promoted in 1944. But after the Air Force became a separate branch of the service on Sept. 18, 1947, Congress officially conferred the rank of general of the Air Force on Arnold on May 7, 1949. By that time, however, Arnold had been long retired and, after suffering a series of heart attacks, he died just eight months later. Although there was some effort to bestow the rank on Gen. Curtis Lemay in 1962, no one has been given the honor since, so Arnold is the only man in history to hold the five-star rank in two service branches.

Finally, on this, the 79th observance of Armistice/Veterans Day as an official legal holiday, may I extend my sincere thanks to all who have served.

Today’s trivia

True or false: Congress has approved the awarding of a sixth star to an Army general should the need arise.

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: After Charles Lindbergh (1927), Walter Chrysler (1928) and Owen Young (1929), Time magazine gave its first Man of the Year award to a foreign citizen in 1930: Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. The first woman to earn the designation came in 1936 when Wallis Simpson led England’s King Edward VIII to abdicate his throne so he could marry her.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer