Fleet admiral (abbreviated FADM), officially known as "Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy", is a five-star flag officer rank in the United States Navy. Fleet admiral ranks immediately above admiral and is equivalent to General of the Army and General of the Air Force. The last living United States Navy fleet admiral was Chester W. Nimitz, who died in 1966.
The United States Navy did not create admiral ranks until the American Civil War, and then only very hesitantly. David Farragut was the first admiral in the U.S. Navy and wore a variety of elaborate sleeve insignia to denote his rank and position. Farragut was succeeded by David Dixon Porter; after the deaths of these two men the United States Navy had no rank greater than rear admiral. The rank of Admiral of the Navy was then created in 1903 for George Dewey in recognition of his victory in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish–American War.
George Dewey held the authority of a modern-day fleet admiral while three permanent admiral positions also existed in the U.S. Navy for the Atlantic, Pacific, and Asiatic Fleets. Dewey died just prior to the U.S. involvement in World War I (16 January 1917) and, during that conflict, the Navy expanded its admiral billets allowing additional positions up to "four-star admiral" which was simply referred to as "admiral". Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the highest rank in the U.S. Navy was that of admiral, with Dewey's special rank Admiral of the Navy discontinued. In 1944 the Navy Department declared Dewey's rank to be senior to the then newly created five-star rank of fleet admiral.
The proper rank of fleet admiral was created in 1944 in order to give United States military officers comparable rank to five-star officers of allied nations. The rank of fleet admiral was created by Congress to be granted to four people during the World War II era. The United States rank of fleet admiral was created by an Act of Congress for four officers to hold on a temporary basis under Pub.L. 78-482 on December 14, 1944. The rank was made permanent for the four individual holders by Pub.L. 79–333 on March 23, 1946, but that law made no provision to establish the rank itself permanently. Although Congress authorized the promotion of Omar Bradley to the five-star rank of general of the Army in 1950 while serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff so that he would be of the same rank as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, the theater commander in Korea, there has been no new legislation authorizing the use of the rank of fleet admiral since 1946.
It was held during and after World War II by the following officers:William D. Leahy – December 15, 1944
Ernest J. King – December 17, 1944
Chester W. Nimitz – December 19, 1944
William F. Halsey, Jr. – December 11, 1945
The timing of the first three appointments was carefully planned, such that a clear order of seniority and a near-equivalence between the services was established for the generals of the Army promoted at the same time. General Marshall was promoted to general of the Army on December 16, 1944; General MacArthur was promoted on December 18, 1944; General Eisenhower was promoted on December 20, 1944, and General Arnold was promoted on December 21, 1944. He would later be laterally promoted to general of the Air Force on May 7, 1949 after the Air Force was created as a separate service as part of the National Defense Act of 1947.
The insignia for a fleet admiral was composed of five silver stars in a pentagonal design. Worn on the service dress uniform sleeve was a gold stripe two inches wide surrounding the sleeve two inches from the cuff with four half-inch stripes placed at 1/4 inch intervals. The single gold five-pointed star, one ray down, worn above the top stripe was not part of the rank per se but indicated the wearer to be a line officer.
A close contender to receive the rank of fleet admiral was Admiral Raymond A. Spruance. However, U.S. Representative Carl Vinson, a strong supporter of Admiral Halsey, reportedly blocked the final promotion of Spruance to fleet admiral on several occasions. Congress then responded by passing an Act of Congress, unprecedented for an individual, that stated that Admiral Spruance would receive a full four-star admiral's salary during the remainder of his life.
The first fleet admiral to leave active duty was Ernest King who retired immediately after the conclusion of World War II. Chester Nimitz and William Halsey both retired two years later while William Leahy was the last fleet admiral to leave active duty in 1949. According to Public Law 78-482, fleet admirals on active duty receive the same pay as a rear admiral, upper half (two star) plus a $5,000 personal allowance, and upon retirement were to receive 75% of their active duty pay. When Public Law 79-333 made the rank permanent for Leahy, King, Nimitz, and Halsey, it also provided for full pay and allowances once those officers retired.
Three of the four fleet admirals died in the late 1950s and, by 1960, Chester Nimitz was the sole surviving U.S. Navy fleet admiral. He held a ceremonial post as Navy adviser to the Western Sea Frontier with his quarters based in San Francisco. Nimitz died in 1966 with no further fleet admirals appointed since. The current policy of the United States Navy is that fleet admiral remains a rank within the promotion tier and could be appointed to an active duty officer at the discretion of the United States Congress.
When the rank of fleet admiral was created, the Navy declared that George Dewey was senior to the newly promoted five-star officers, but did not state that Admiral of the Navy was a six-star rank. Since there was never a scenario where fleet admiral and Admiral of the Navy were active ranks concurrently, the Navy drew no equivalence or relationship of seniority between the two. The Department of the Navy did briefly consider the possibility of a "six-star rank" during World War II, mainly in the event that Douglas MacArthur was promoted to General of the Armies, and the need to provide a similar rank to a Navy officer. However, as MacArthur's promotion was never approved, the Navy dropped the idea for a new version of Admiral of the Navy with no such proposals issued since.
The only officially recognized United States military rank senior to fleet admiral is General of the Armies. In 1981, an unofficial insignia for "six-star admiral" was created after Congress requested clarification as to what procedure would occur should a Navy officer ever be promoted to an equivalent rank of General of the Armies.