Fleet Adm. William D. Leahy. Portrait photograph taken circa 1945, while he was Chief of Staff to the President of the United States. Naval History and Heritage Photograph from the Collection of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy.
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Leahy. King. Nimitz. Halsey.
One of the most exclusive collections of men ever in the history of the Navy. This band of four Naval officers are the only ones to have worn five stars during their service in defense of freedom during World War II.
The 20th century rank of Fleet Admiral was created in the on Dec. 14, 1944 — along with General of the Army — during the second session of the 79th Congress.
(For those looking for a great trivia question here’s a little tidbit: When the Fleet Admiral rank was created, it was named very deliberately with the intent of making the rank subordinate to the rank of Admiral of the Navy – no word on corresponding number of stars – once held by Admiral George Dewey.)
Fleet Adm. Ernest King Portrait photograph, taken in 1945. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
But back to Dec. 1944 when four-star admirals William Leahy, Ernest King and Chester Nimitz were promoted. A year later, Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. joined their ranks.
Fleet Adm. Chester A. Nimitz, Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas Photographed circa early 1945. Naval History and Heritage Photograph from the Collection of Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
It was quite the departure from when America’s forefathers chose to eschew the title of admiral.
Back in 1775, still under the rule of imperialistic Great Britain, those in charge of deciding ranks felt the titles of admiralty in general were hallmarks of aristocracy. Since the fledgling republic was rebelling against royal rule, they didn’t want the Navy to become a mirror image of their old masters. Captains who commanded squadrons or more than one ship gained the temporary title of commodore.
Not everyone agreed. Lt. John Paul Jones was among those who thought a naval rank equivalent to an Army general should exist. When the Navy expanded to more than six ships, he also thought a senior officer should be promoted to settle disputes among captains.
Another issue was foreign relations among navies. American senior officers were “often subjected to serious difficulties and embarrassments” when dealing with British or Ottoman or French admirals. Congress, however, didn’t understand the problem. Since admirals were the highest ranking officers in those navies, and captains were the highest ranking officers in their Navy, clearly they were on equal ground, Congress thought. That thinking was in direct conflict with the opinions of various Secretaries of the Navy, not to mention Navy captains.
The American admiralty was eventually created, though. During the Civil War, the Navy rapidly expanded, and Congress authorized nine rear admirals on July 16, 1862. Two years after that, David Glasgow Farragut was promoted from their ranks to become the first vice admiral. Farragut eventually was promoted again to the newly created rank of admiral on July 25, 1866. When Farragut died in 1870, David Dixon Porter fleeted up to Farragut’s position and rank.
Until 1915, only four officers had been promoted above rear admiral — Farragut, Porter, and Stephen C. Rowan, plus the one officer who rose above them and remains to this day the most senior naval officer in American history.
George Dewey’s accomplishments during the Spanish-American War were recognized by Congress, authorizing the president to appoint him as “Admiral of the Navy,” a rank he wore until his death in 1917. Nobody since has held that title.
The ranks of vice- and full admiral were revived shortly after the outbreak of World War I, with one of each rank assigned to the Atlantic, Pacific and Asiatic fleets.
As the storm clouds of a second world war formed once again, the U.S. Navy began to expand after its post-WWI drawdown. In between June 1938 and December 1944, ships in the fleet grew from 380 to 6,084—a 1,501 percent increase. And with the expansion of the fleet and the enormity of responsibility, even the rank of full admiral was not enough. So, in December 1944, the admiralty increased too.
But another reason may be that the admirals were echoing claims from the previous centuries, according to E. Kelly Taylor, author of the book America’s Army and the Language of Grunts, “several American commanders found themselves in the awkward position of commanding Allied officers of higher rank.”
Congress came together and passed an act “to establish the grade of Fleet Admiral for the United States Navy; to establish the grade of General of the Army, and for other purposes.” Leahy, King and Nimitz were appointed to this new grade of Fleet Admiral.
The act set some rules: “Appointments to said grade shall be made by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among line officers on the active list and retired line officers on active duty serving in the rank of admiral in the Navy at the time of such appointment. The number of officers of such grade on the active list at any one time shall not exceed four.”
And the seniority of each was also established: “The officers appointed under the provisions of this Act shall take rank among themselves while on active duty according to dates of appointment.”
Fleet Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. portrait photograph, dated Feb. 6, 1946. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Their dates of appointment were separated by two days: Dec. 15, 17, and 19, 1944 for Leahy, King and Nimitz respectively. Generals of the Armies George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower were promoted in between on the 16th, 18th, and 20th respectively. A fourth Army general Henry H. Arnold was promoted Dec. 21, 1944. Halsey was promoted on Dec. 11, 1945. This made Leahy the ranking five-star.
In a brief introduction to the four Fleet Admirals, the Naval Historical Foundation said, “It is interesting to note that each of the naval officers promoted to the five-star rank followed different career tracks. […] They served as younger officers when the Navy was making its expansion in aviation and submarine development.
“[Halsey] began his career as a destroyer officer, and transitioned to the aviation branch with only one short tour of duty ashore in Washington. [Nimitz] was a submariner whose assignments included duty in Europe studying diesel propulsion, duty on board capital ships and an assignment ashore as Chief of Naval Personnel. [Leahy] had almost all his sea duty in large commands, with the exception of one tour, with all assigned shore duty in Washington, including tours as the chiefs of two bureaus. [King] had a seagoing career that encompassed all three communities, surface, submarine and aviation branches; as part of his shore duty he was the head of the Postgraduate School and the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics.”
Their broad backgrounds were clearly an asset during a war fought in both hemispheres and all warfare areas.
Afterwards, on March 23, 1946, Congress passed another Act authorizing the Fleet Admirals to retire as such with full pay. Since then, no other admirals have been further promoted.
The original promotions of the four were done by law. That same law also provided for their termination. “This Act shall be effective only until six months after the termination of the wars in which the United States is now engaged as proclaimed by the President, or such earlier date as the Congress, by concurrent resolution, may fix.”
In a sense, the magnitude of World War II created the grade. Since then, no other war has mandated its return.