Just How Many Stars Can An Officer Wear? The Coveted Five Stars Explained (Part 1 of 2): The US Army, US Air Force, and US Marines

The highest rank in the US Army today is General, which is a four star rank, followed by Lt. General, three stars, Major General, two stars, and Brigadier General, one star. This is the same in the USMC and the USAF. General of the Army, a five star rank, is a wartime rank created especially by the US Congress. There were only five Generals of the Army from World War Two:

  • General of the Army George C. Marshall: December 16, 1944 (Note the date of Marshall’s commission. Because of this, he was the most senior of the five star generals.)
  • General of the Army Douglas MacArthur: December 18, 1944
  • General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower: December 20, 1944
  • General of the Army Henry H. Arnold: December 21, 1944
  • General of the Army Omar N. Bradley: September 20, 1950

The date of Bradley’s commission as a five star general is interesting since it is a wartime rank. When the Congress gave him the rank in 1950, they said it was to recognize his service in WW II. This is very curious.

The only higher rank is: General of the Armies of the United States and only two men have held that rank. The first is General John J. Pershing for his service in World War One. The second is George Washington, who was given the rank posthumously in 1976 when the Congress belatedly realized during the bicentennial celebrations in 1976 that Pershing theoretically outranked Washington. The Congress felt, and rightly so, that no one could outrank George Washington.

No five star generals have been appointed since Omar Bradley. Unlike other generals, a five star general does not retire and keeps his commission along with pay and benefits for life. However, Dwight Eisenhower resigned his commission as a five star general when he decided to seek the office of President of the United States. After Eisenhower left office, the Congress restored his five star rank.

Eisenhower was the force behind the interstate highway system which is formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. A special sign notes that the Interstate System is named for General Eisenhower and the five stars on the sign are a reference to his five star rank. Eisenhower’s inspiration for this came from the German autobahn which I will do a post about.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Wikipedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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