My father graduated from high school in 1942, which meant that his senior class was the one that heard the news in December about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following graduation, he moved west, finally living for a while with his older sister and her husband in San Diego, and working in an aircraft factory.
Daddy was eventually drafted and stationed at Pearl, which was the headquarters of CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet). Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was in command of that theater.
Perhaps Daddy’s fondest memory of his military career occurred one day while he was on garbage detail. It happened that Admiral Nimitz walked past and Daddy had to snap to attention and salute from among the trash cans. My father died a year ago, and as his health declined, I wondered several times how many men are still living who have actually saluted a five-star officer while in active service. As each day passes, it is an increasingly exclusive club.
Only nine men in U.S. history have worn five stars (Fleet Admiral or General of the Army). The fifth star was added in 1944 so that we would have a rank comparable to the Field Marshals of the European countries.
The Fleet Admirals were (in order of their date of rank) William Leahy, Ernest King, Nimitz, and William “Bull” Halsey. The Generals of the Army were George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley. Bradley was the last of the five-star officers to die (in 1981).
Arnold commanded the Army Air Corps, which later was made into a separate branch of the military. Accordingly, in 1948 he was made General of the Air Force and is the only person to date to have held that rank.
It is interesting that of those officers only Admiral Leahy did not have a direct military command during the War, although he was the first person to have a fifth star and thus the most senior officer in the armed forces (although probably the least well known of the nine). He served as President Roosevelt’s personal Chief of Staff and as such reported directly to him and not through the Secretary of War. Though he was not in the direct military chain of command, he functioned as de facto Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and was directly involved in wartime decisions.
You might not realize that there have been three men in history who actually outranked even the five-star officers. General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing was given the rank of General of the Armies (plural) after World War I and was considered senior to the five-star generals when that rank was established, although he was never awarded an additional star.
After the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, George Dewey was awarded the rank of Admiral of the Navy. Although I do not find that he was ever actually given any additional stars, his rank was in 1944 declared to be senior to that of Fleet Admiral.
Finally, in 1978, Congress passed a resolution that awarded George Washington the rank of General of the Armies of the United States. The legislation said, “Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present. The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976” [portions omitted]. This legislation made Washington permanently senior to all other generals.
So now you know them all. To the best of my knowledge that is the complete list of the men who went Beyond Four Stars.