Following the death of Gen. Omar Bradley in 1981, the elite rank of five-star general feels more like a legend than reality. Since Congress allowed the temporary establishment of the five-star rank in 1944, only nine servicemen have been bestowed the title.
Makings of a five-star general
Born out of necessity during the Second World War, the five-star rank was temporarily established to eliminate the incompatibility of US commanders charged with commanding Allied officers who were technically higher ranking. When Public Law 482 permitted the creation of the rank, the US Army promoted four servicemen to Generals of the Army: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur and Henry “Hap” Arnold.
The law also allowed the US Navy to promote its sailors, with Ernest J. King, Chester Nimitz and William Leahy immediately becoming fleet admirals. A fourth, William Halsey, was promoted in 1945. Five years later, Omar Bradley became the ninth and final five-star general.
Technically, the rank still exists, but no one else has been given the title. If the US president and Senate agree, a general or admiral can be promoted to the five-star rank at any time, but military policy more closely resembles the parameters established in World War II: five-star generals are only created if their rank is equal to or higher than officers of another nation under his or her command.
These nine men rose above and beyond what their country expected of them. They were committed leaders, powerful warriors and sophisticated strategists – nothing short of heroes. The few who were elevated to this prestigious position were given active-duty pay for the remainder of their lives, even after they retired.
Fleet Adm. William D. Leahy
The very first person to be promoted to the five-star rank was Fleet Adm. William D. Leahy. Leahy served as the Chief of Naval Operations from 1937-39, during which time the US Navy expanded, and following his retirement was appointed the Governor of Puerto Rico and, later, the US Ambassador to France.
Upon his return from France, Leahy was called back as a senior member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as an aide to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this role, he helped develop key strategies throughout WWII. In December 1944, he received the rank of Fleet Admiral, and after Roosevelt’s death continued to serve alongside President Harry S. Truman, ultimately helping lead the US to victory over Germany and Japan.
Gen. George Marshall
George Marshall’s lengthy military service is truly awe-inspiring. Born in 1880, he became a second lieutenant in the US Army in 1902. After serving in Europe throughout World War I, Marshall was the aide-de-camp to Gen. John J. Pershing and traveled to dozens of posts internationally and in the US.
At the start of WWII, President Roosevelt appointed Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. He soon became an instrumental leader in the war effort, preparing US forces for war and coordinating the Army’s expansion throughout Europe. President Truman named him the “architect of victory” in the conflict, and he was promoted to five-star general, the first Army officer to be named to the rank.
Under the Truman administration, Marshall became Secretary of State and, later, Secretary of Defense. His active-duty designation made it hard for him to fulfill his political responsibilities and he was ultimately removed from it until he was no longer in office.
Fleet Adm. Ernest J. King
Ernest King’s lifelong service in the US Navy began at a very early age. Attending the US Naval Academy in 1897, he served onboard the USS San Francisco (C-5) during the Spanish-American War. He later was named the commander of USS Terry (DD-25) and a torpedo flotilla. Following the First World War, King, then a captain, was placed in command of a submarine flotilla and base in Connecticut.
An early leader in the Naval Air Force, King captained the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) and was later promoted to Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics. Following Pearl Harbor, he became Commander in Chief of the US Fleet, and was promoted to Chief of Naval Operations the following year.
As part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, King was instrumental in leading offensive operations against Japan, despite limited resources, and for his efforts was promoted to Fleet Admiral in December 1944. He continued to advise on military matters until his death in 1956.
Gen. Douglas MacArthur
A true American innovator, Douglas MacArthur became the US Army’s youngest general at just 45 years old. Having served in Europe during the First World War, he was named the Army Chief of Staff in 1930, with the rank of general. While in this role, he was tasked with removing the Bonus Army from Washington, DC, an incident that became a public relations nightmare for him and the US military.
When Japanese aggression became an increasing threat to security in 1941, he was recalled to active-duty as commander of the US Army forces in the Far East. For most of his career, MacArthur was heavily involved in the Philippines, and was named the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific in April 1942.
Following the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, he vowed to return, a promise he made a reality 16 months later. He was promoted to five-star general in December 18, 1944, and later went on to oversee the Allied occupation of Japan following the country’s surrender.
For his efforts in the Philippines, MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was called into service once more at the outbreak of the Korean War, as the Chief of the United Nations (UN) Command. However, he was “fired” from this role after a falling out with President Truman, which resulted from MacArthur’s request to bomb China and use the National Chinese forces from Taiwan against the country.
Despite being a decorated Fleet Admiral, Chester Nimitz wasn’t even given his high school diploma until after being promoted. Just like his grandfather, he became a naval captain and successfully commanded several submarines, including the USS Snapper (SS-185), Narwhal (SS-167) and Skipjack (SS-184). In 1912, he was awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal by the Treasury Department after saving a second-class fireman from drowning after a strong tide swept him off his ship.
Nimitz served throughout WWI and beyond, working as an aide for a number of officials in the US Navy. He was eventually appointed as Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas in 1941, serving in the position throughout the war. On December 19, 1944, he was promoted to Fleet Admiral, and just under a year later served as the signatory to the surrender terms in Japan, onboard the USS Missouri (BB-63).
After continued service in the Navy and with the UN, Nimitz spent much of his time involved in his local San Francisco community, including raising funds for the Naval Historical Foundation, where he helped restore the Japanese battleship Mikasa.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower is most renowned for his role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during D-Day, but his legacy extends past his military service. During the early years of his career, he served under such US Army generals as John J. Pershing, Walter Krueger and Douglas MacArthur, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor was called to Washington, DC by Gen. George Marshall to help plan the American war strategy.
In 1942, Eisenhower commanded the Allied landings in North Africa, and later oversaw the invasion of Sicily. On December 20, 1944, he was promoted to the rank of five-star general.
Following his service during the Second World War, Eisenhower was elected US president in 1952 – the only one with a five-star rank. Over his two terms, he worked to obtain a truce during the Korean War and aided in mitigating the Cold War. Despite his extensive military service, Eisenhower was a life-long advocate for peace.
Gen. Henry H. Arnold
Henry Arnold was a true US Air Force pioneer, and the only person to have been promoted to the rank of five-star general in two services. Taught to fly by the Wright Brothers, he became one of the first military aviators. His skills allowed him to teach other pilots at the Signal Corps aviation school, and during the First World War he was in charge of Information Service in the Aviation Division of the Signal Corps.
During the interwar period, Arnold promoted the development of such bombers as the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. In 1938, he was promoted to Chief of the US Army Air Corps. This title later changed to Chief of the US Army Air Forces.
Thanks to Arnold’s passion and dedication to aviation, the air arm of the US Army grew from 22,000 officers with 3,900 aircraft to 2.5 million men and 75,000 planes! For his dedication, he was named a five-star general with both the Army and Air Force.
Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey Jr.
Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey was an accomplished and dedicated serviceman who commanded countless vessels throughout WWI and the Second World War. Prior to the start of WWII, he served onboard a number of vessels, before commanding the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) and, later, Yorktown (CV-5).
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Halsey was in command of the USS Enterprise (CV-6). Following that, he was appointed the commander of the South Pacific Force. In this position, he led the Allied forces throughout the Battle of Guadalcanal and during the fighting in the Solomon Islands.
When the fighting moved to the Central Pacific, Halsey was promoted to commanding officer of the Third Fleet, with whom he led the campaigns to take Luzon, Palaus and Leyte. He also conducted a number or raids on Japanese bases. For his efforts, he was promoted to the rank of Fleet Admiral on December 11, 1945.
Gen. Omar N. Bradley
Omar Bradley was the last man to be awarded the rank of five-star general. Graduating from the US Military Academy in 1915, he rose through the ranks of the US Army during the Second World War. In 1943, at the request of Gen. Eisenhower, Bradley arrived in North Africa, where he served as deputy commander under George Patton.
Bradley was known as an exceptional combat leader and was a favorite of the Allies, with his troops referring to him as the “GI’s general.” Eisenhower rewarded his abilities by stationing him as the field commander for the American forces in Operation Overlord. Following the Normandy landings, he commanded the First Army and the 12th Army Group during fighting in France. Most notable was the Allied victory during the Battle of the Bulge.
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By the end of WWII, Bradley had commanded 43 divisions, which equaled 1.3 million men – the largest body of American soldiers to ever serve under a single field commander. Prior to his death in 1981, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work with NATO, his efforts in Korea and for his role as Lyndon B. Johnson’s advisor during the Vietnam War.