One might be surprised to find who is not on this list which includes George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry “Hap” Arnold and Omar N. Bradley.
The rank of Five Star General was created as a sort of brevet or provisional rank by Congress in 1944. It is officially designated as the “General of the Army”. It became a permanent rank in 1946. This new designation came about as an honor bestowed on World War II Generals who distinguished themselves as leaders in their particular service during the war.
George Catlett Marshall, Jr. was the first to be named Five Star General on December 16. 1944. Marshall was born December 31, 1880 in Uniontown, PA. His family was not well to do but had a rich history including family ties to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall from the early 19th Century. He graduated with honors form the Virginia Military Institute and in World War I he worked closely under General John Pershing and eventually became his Aide-de-Camp. In 1939 on the day Germany invaded Poland to begin World War II he was promoted to Major General. He became such an integral part of Franklin Roosevelt’s team as Chief of Staff that the President felt he was too valuable to give up to the frontline in World War II. However, Marshall is credited by most historians with having been Roosevelt’s surrogate in running the war from the White House.
MacArthur was promoted to Five Star General on December 18, 1944. He was born in Little Rock, AR on January 26, 1880. He was an Army child from the beginning as he was born in the Little Rock Arsenal where his parents were stationed. In World War I, MacArthur earned a Distinguished Service Medal, two Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses, and seven Silver Stars. In 1919 he was appointed the Superintendent at West Point. He was promoted to Major General in 1925. MacArthur also spent time as Chief of Staff in the early 1930s and is best remembered for his promise to the Philippine people after the Japanese overran the Island nation, “I shall return!”
Five Star General Dwight David Eisenhower was commissioned on December 20, 1944. He was born on October 14, 1890 in Denison, TX. The Army was second on his list of career choices; his childhood dream was to be a professional baseball player. He appointed to the class of 1915 at West Point where he played football. During World War I, he spent his time training tank crews in Pennsylvania. Eisenhower served in a succession of staff duties, spending 16 years as a Major before being promoted to Lt. Colonel in 1936. Five years later, as Assistant Chief of Staff to George Marshall he became a Brigadier. In 1945 he was named Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and he was also elected President of the United States from 1953-1960.
Henry Arnold was born on June 25, 1886, in Gladwyne, PA. He was commissioned as a Five Star General on December 21, 1944. He came from a military family where his father – who was also a physician – served in the Pennsylvania National Guard. At the age of 17, he was appointed to the class of 1907 at West Point. He was quite the prankster in school and it cost him a coveted position in the Cavalry. By 1909 1st Lt. Arnold had secured a slot in the U.S. Signal Corps as a pilot and was shipped to an aviation school in Simms Station OH where he learned to fly from the Wright brothers themselves. Political ups and downs kept him on the clerical side of the Army Air Corp but he steadily rose in rank and responsibility during and after World War I. By 1941, General Henry Arnold was made Chief of the United States Army Air Forces where he served through World War II. In 1949, he was named as the first “General of the Air Force”, the only man to serve as a Five Star general in two branches of the Armed Forces.
The last Five Star General to date was commissioned on September 20, 1950. He was born in Clark, MO on February 12, 1893. He graduated with the class of 1915 from West Point where he was a professor of Mathematics off an on until 1934. In 1941, after working on George Marshall’s staff for three years he made Brigadier General. In World War II he was instrumental in turning around some disasters during Operation Torch in North Africa and played a vital role under General George Patton in the invasion of Sicily. When it came time to launch the D-Day invasion known as Operation Overlord, he was in command of the United States First Army at the Utah and Omaha beaches of Normandy. In 1949 he was named as the first official Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
One conspicuously missing General on this list is General John “Black Jack” Pershing who was named General of the Armies after World War I. Although he commanded the respect of his prior rank until his death in 1949, he never wore a 5th star. This is because his designation, General of the Armies (plural) made him commander of all of the Armed Forces while these five distinguished Servicemen were only the head of one branch at a time.
- 15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century by Stanley Weintraub, 2007, The Free Press
- Contrails, The Air Force Academy Cadet Handbook, Volume 49, 2003-2004, United States Air Force Academy