The military is structured around the rank system. From the first day of boot camp, soldiers are taught that authority, responsibility, and privilege all hinge upon rank. Few soldiers experienced such a meteoric rise in rank as Dwight D. Eisenhower. It happened so quickly and spectacularly that it awed stranger and family, alike.
In the span of fewer than four years, 1941 to 1944, Eisenhower went from the rank of lieutenant colonel to five-star general, becoming one of a handful of Americans to ever achieve this rank.
Soldiers who only rarely interact with a brigadier general can sometimes get a little flustered when in the presence of someone with multiple stars. Eisenhower received his fourth star on February 15, 1943. Not too long afterward, the general visited the front to inspect a newly established PX. He was wearing a raincoat, and the soldier in charge of the PX did not recognize him. Ike removed the raincoat, exposing the shiny new stars on his shoulders. The soldier’s eyes grew wide, and he blurted out, “Holy cats! It’s the Milky Way!”
Getting flustered in the face of such a high-ranking officer is not limited to strangers. Even family can sometimes say things without thinking. Eisenhower’s son, John, graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point on June 6, 1944. The joy of that day was tempered by the fact that the long-awaited D-Day invasion of Europe was underway, with Dwight Eisenhower in command of all Allied forces.
Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall ordered the younger Eisenhower to Europe to spend his leave with his father. John was proud of the shiny gold bar on his cap, proclaiming his status as a newly-commissioned officer, and he enjoyed the special privileges that came from being the son Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He quickly was reminded there was a big difference between Second Lieutenant Eisenhower and General Eisenhower. In John’s 1974 memoir entitled Strictly Personal, he wrote, “I was not only his son; I was a young lieutenant who needed on occasion to be straightened out.” He recalled that shortly after greeting his father, “I asked him in all earnestness: ‘If we should meet an officer who ranks above me but below you, how do we handle this? Should I salute first and when they return my salute, do you return theirs?’ Dad’s annoyed reaction was short. ‘John, there isn’t an officer in this theater who doesn’t rank above you and below me.’”
The elder Eisenhower, of course, went on to achieve a status even higher than that of 5-star general when he became the 34th President of the United States and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the United States. Upon leaving office in 1961, he preferred that people adddress him as “General,” rather than “Mr. President.” Even so, he was quick to acknowledge certain benefits of the Presidency. He said, “There is one thing about being President — nobody can tell you when to sit down.”
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