Just How Many Stars Can An Officer Wear? The Coveted Five Stars Explained (Part 2 of 2): The US Navy

The highest rank in the US Navy today is Admiral, a four star rank, followed by Vice-Admiral, a three star rank, followed by Rear Admiral – Upper Half, a two star rank, and Rear Admiral – Lower Half, a one star rank. Sort of confusing. This same rank structure used in the US Navy is also used in the US Coast Guard, the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps, and the United States Maritime Service.

When I was successfully treated for cancer at the National Cancer Institute, the research hospital was run by the US Public Health Service and many of the nurses were officers in the PHS and wore US Navy uniforms and were on the same pay scale and had the same benefits as US Navy officers. Through happenstance, I have an acquaintance with a Rear Admiral-Upper Half in the US Public Health Service so I can say they really exist. He was the one who explained to me the Upper Half and Lower Half ranks.

In World War Two, when the Congress created the rank of General of the Army, it also created a five star rank for the US navy: Fleet Admiral (not Admiral of the Fleet). Four men received that rank and all received it during the war except for Halsey. Why did the Congress create only four Fleet Admirals but five General of the Army? No one seems to know.

  • Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy: December 15, 1944,
  • Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King: December 17, 1944,
  • Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz: December 19, 1944,
  • Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.: December 21, 1945

Many incorrectly assume Admiral Spruance was made a Fleet Admiral but this isn’t the case. This is a travesty since Spruance is, after Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the greatest Admiral in the history of the US Navy and the victor of the Battle of Midway, the most critical naval battle of World War Two in the Pacific. Fortunately, Clio, the muse of history, has cleared away the cobwebs and recognized Spruance as one of the great admirals of the war. Halsey has seen his reputation reduced to that of the bumbler he was. He made several astounding errors of judgment including twice leading his fleet into a typhoon.

On two instances US Navy Boards of Inquiry were convened. They examined the facts and recommended Halsey stand before a court martial. These were both squashed by Admiral Nimitz. BTW, this is one of those little, obscure things which bug me as an author. The plural of court martial is “courts martial” and NOT “court martials.” Court is the noun. Martial is the adjective and not the other way around. I feel better having gotten that off my chest.

Fleet Admirals, just as Generals of the Army, do not retire and keep their commissions for life along with the salary and benefits. At the time the Congress made Halsey a Fleet Admiral and denied the rank to Spruance, they knew an injustice had been done so they passed a special Act of Congress, which made Spruance’s four star rank, a lifetime rank for Spruance only.

Theoretically, the only higher rank in the navy is Admiral of the Navy but only George Dewey, the victor of the Battle of Manila Bay against the Spanish Navy during the Spanish American War, has ever held the rank. Given that the battle was between a modern US fleet and an obsolete Spanish fleet and only one American was killed, an engineering officer who died of a heart attack, one can cast something of a jaundiced eye on this “Battle.”

[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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