5 Star Generals in U.S. History

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about American five-star generals. We will highlight the accomplishments of these extraordinary military leaders, and we will also explore the history of the 5 star rank.

What Exactly is a Five-Star General?

Many of you have probably heard of the rank of five-star general. Maybe you've seen a cartoon, movie, or documentary with a reference to this unique rank. However, for many people, the history and meaning of this rank is unclear. In this lesson, we will be learning all about five-star generals in American history.

So what exactly is a five-star general? The rank was actually created in 1944 during World War II because American officers found themselves in the potentially awkward position of having to command other allied officers of a higher rank. Interestingly, the rank of five-star general is actually not the highest rank in the U.S. armed forces. The highest rank of in the American military is ''General of the Armies of the United States'', an equivalent of a six-star rank. Only two men have ever held this position: General John Jay Pershing and General George Washington. In Washington's case, the rank was awarded posthumously in 1976.

But back to the rank of five-star general. This exceptional rank existed between 1944 and 1981. Officers hold this rank for life, and typically are the highest authority in military matters, subordinate only to the President of the United States. Only nine men have held this rank. Let's see who they were.

America's Five-Star Generals in the Army

General George C. Marshall (1880-1959) played a leadership role throughout World War II. He was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff between 1939-1945, and in this position can be thought of as the ''mastermind'' behind America's involvement in World War II. Marshall was a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. After World War II, be became known for his involvement in supplying war-torn Europe with economic aid packages, a program that has come to be known as the ''Marshall Plan'' in his honor.

George C. Marshall can be thought of as the mastermind behind American involvement in World War II.

During World War II General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) oversaw American military operations in the Pacific Theater. He was a graduate of West Point. After the war, MacArthur was the viceroy of occupied Japan, and he played a vital role in its reconstruction. He was also played leading role in the Korean War, until he his criticism of President Harry S. Truman resulted in his dismissal.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower served as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II. A graduate of West Point, he is known for his role commanding Operation Overlord, or the D-Day invasion of Occupied France in 1944. Eisenhower went on to become the 34th President of the United States, serving between 1953-1961.

General Eisenhower speaking to airborne troops the day before D-Day.

General Omar N. Bradley, also a graduate of West Point, commanded forces in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Following the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, General Bradley commanded ground forces as they marched westward into Germany. When he died in 1981, it was decided that the rank of five-star general should be discontinued.

America's Five Star Admirals in the Navy

The five-star rank was also used in the U.S. Navy. William D. Leahy (1875-1959) was a U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral and the first naval officer to ever hold a five-star rank. He also served as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief. Like General Marshall, Leahy was at the center of all major operational decision during World War II.

Underneath Leahy, was Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King (1878-1956), who was Chief of Naval Operations and the Commander in Chief of the U.S. Fleet. King attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and played a decisive role in planning naval operations.

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) was the commander of the Pacific Fleet. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Nimitz held expertise in submarine warfare. He oversaw American operations during the Battle of Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign, and other key Pacific campaigns. Admiral Nimitz signed the Instrument of Surrender for the U.S., bringing an end to the war in the Pacific.

Admiral Nimitz signed the Instruments of Surrender with Japan, ending World War II.

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