In the middle of one lonely night in 1970 when I had the duty at headquarters I answered a telephone call from an off-post bar. It seemed that there was a hot controversy going about whether there was such a rank as a six-star general. I knew that Pershing had been promoted to a higher rank than General but I didn’t know what the insignia was so I wasn’t able to be the tie-breaker. What follows is the whole story about ‘six-star’ generals. Judge for yourself what I should have said.
Between 1866 and 1888 the highest rank in the U.S. Army was titled ‘General of the Army’. It was bestowed on, in serial order, Ulysses Grant, William Sherman and Phillip Sheridan. None of these men ever wore more than four stars. Then for the next fifty-odd years the highest ranking officer in the army was a General, wearing four stars.
On September 3rd, 1919 the U.S. Congress promoted General John Pershing to the rank of ‘General of the Armies of the United States’ (PL 66-45). By specific intention Pershing would be the only person ever to attain this rank while on active duty. Pershing never wore more than four stars, although he preferred gold stars to the standard silver.
In 1942 it became apparent that Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, as the newly-designated Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, needed another star as technically he was subordinate to a British Field Marshal, so the rank of General of the Army was reinstated with the designated insignia of five stars.
There was a domino effect; it became necessary to promote Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall who was Eisenhower’s superior, then the flamboyant Gen. Douglas MacArthur (who had been ranked Field Marshal in the Philippine Army) claimed five stars for himself as Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, then the commander of the Air Force and three Navy admirals joined the queue. The rank was later codified on Dec. 14th, 1944 with the passage of PL 78-482. There have been no ‘five star’ officers since Omar Bradley died in 1981.
In 1976, first by Joint Resolution and later reinforced by PL 94-479, the U.S. Congress posthumously promoted George Washington from Lieutenant General to General of the Armies of the United States, stipulating that no officer of the United States armed forces could ever outrank him.
Although no General of the Armies has ever worn six stars (or even five) every general officer has a flag and the hypothetical one for a General of the Armies is shown above.