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Darby's Rangers

 

 

Brigadier General William O. Darby:  1st - 3rd - 4th Ranger Battalions Commander
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1942 was a year of great anxiety and emotional wandering. The world was shapeless and in turmoil. Everyday life had been snatched away for millions of people who now found themselves searching for a way to face whatever would happen next. A generation became an army and countless uncertainties began to unite in a common cause. 
 
William Orlando Darby (b. 9 February 1911) was a young career officer pondering what part he would play in the global struggle. After graduation from West Point in 1933, he had been assigned to the Field Artillery and through the years, became a seasoned soldier. There is ample evidence to suggest he was continually exploring ways to personalize and broaden his career. Doris Darby Watkins remembers her brother’s strong interest in flying. Darby expanded his resume’ by participating in amphibious landing exercises in the United States and Caribbean region. 
 
Nine years of soldiering finally found absolute meaning for him in 1942 when he was given the task of organizing and heading the First Ranger Battalion. As volunteers interviewed with Major Darby and his officers, they left those meetings with a new found purpose as well. The Rangers would be populated with young men who wanted to feel vital. The waiting was over for them! Thus, history records the precious melding of unique and strong personalities who became Darby’s Rangers. 
 
The First Ranger Battalion and its offspring, the Third and Fourth Battalions, experienced a rare partnership where both officers and enlisted men trained, fought and died together. “The Men of My Command” a poem by Major Alvah H. Miller (KIA Cisterna) is an eloquent example of that bond. Ranger officers Herman Dammer and Roy Murray were greatly admired by their men and should always be mentioned in any remembrance of Darby’s Rangers. 
 
Darby’s father, Percy, “never met a stranger” and his friendly personality transferred to young William. Darby was encouraged to explore music and literature in a loving home provided by his mother, Nell. As Ranger leader, Darby validated his childhood rearing by treating his men with respect, showing great concern for their safety and grieving for those soldiers lost in battle. His sister, Doris, remembers her brother’s conversation regarding enemy soldiers as ordinary people with families, jobs, hopes and fears. 
 
His sensitivities and kind manner, however, were tempered by the essential, no-nonsense qualities of a true combat leader who stressed discipline and training; one who could both motivate and inspire and one who would maintain an emotional stability even in the most extreme circumstances. 
 
Darby was known as a fighting officer and many times would unnecessarily expose himself in battle-a common practice by leaders for centuries. It can be argued his actions demonstrated a desire to instill confidence and courage in his men. His early training had begun in one of the last army horse mounted units and many of his instructors traced their military lineage to the prior century so this reasoning is entirely plausible. 
 
Through his unique background, experience and Ranger success, Darby was able to “create” his commands throughout the war and, at Salerno, controlled thousands of soldiers in multiple units. Higher ranking officers reported to him in many major engagements. His rank was almost always below that which was command required, so it is always amazing to consider the three battalions of Darby’s Rangers. As is well known, they were provisional and could have been disbanded at any time-even Eisenhower refused to designate an HQ! Darby was a Lieutenant Colonel commanding a Regiment sized force. At Salerno, his command would normally require a Star Rank. In 1945, as a Colonel, Darby replaced a Brigadier General as Assistant Commander of the Tenth Mountain Division. Elements of the 504th and 509th Parachute Infantry Battalions, 83rd Chemical Mortor Battalion, 325th Glider Regiment and many other outstanding units proudly remember shared engagements with the Rangers under Darby’s command. 
 
Those Rangers honored by the Sons and Daughters became a family who fought, suffered and won-forcing the Army to keep them as a fighting force. Many believe they had a connected desire to succeed and there are many supporting stories of wounded soldiers like Ben Defoe, who “escaped” his hospital when faced with a transfer out of the Rangers. 
 
After Cisterna, many of the surviving Rangers, including Noe Salinas, Ted Fleser and Hollis Stabler, were absorbed into the fabled First Special Service Force. William O. Darby was given command of the battered and seriously under strengthed 179th Infantry Regiment at the Anzio Beachhead where he was instrumental in repulsing a furious German counterattack. It is a humbling exercise to consider Darby’s endurance through the lengthy, close-in, bitter and costly fighting at Venafro, then a month later the fury and loss at Cisterna, followed by the carnage with the 179th Regiment at Anzio. 
 
Colonel William O. Darby was awarded three Purple Hearts, two Distinguished Service Crosses, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Russian Order of Kutuzov and the French Croix de Guerre. 
 
He enjoyed working relationships with General Terry Allen, General Mark Clark, General Lucian Truscott, General George Hays and the legendary General George Patton. Patton awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and offered him command of the 180th Combat Infantry Regiment, which Darby refused so he could stay with the Rangers. Darby also corresponded with and had many personal meetings with General Eisenhower. 
 
Following a year long stint at the Pentagon where he was assigned to the Operations Division of the War Department General Staff, Darby returned to the war in Italy as Assistant Commander of the Tenth Mountain Division. He was killed just days before the German surrender. His long journey from North Africa to Sicily, then up the boot of Italy was virtually completed. At the age of thirty-four, he was posthumously given the rank of Brigadier General. 
 
Many Ranger offspring carry the names “Bill” or “William” and there are world-wide reminders of General William Orlando Darby’s legacy to the present day. Army camps in Italy and Germany bear his name as did the ship USAT General William O.Darby, a recently scrapped military troop transport that distinguished itself in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. 
 
James Garner played him in the 1958 Warner Brothers film, “Darby’s Rangers”. Ranger James Altieri’s books, in particular, the “Spearheaders”, provide historical perspective to his life. Ranger Phil Stern’s photographs of Darby and the Rangers are some of the finest examples of combat photography. Stern almost died of wounds received while he was a Ranger photographer. 
 
Darby’s hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas boasts the Darby Foundation which is headquartered in his boyhood home on a street bearing his name. The Fort Smith Museum of History has a large display of memorabilia and personal effects as well as a sizeable archival collection-most of which was donated by his sister, Doris. The junior high school is also named for Darby and their mascot is the Ranger. Darby is interred at the National Cemetery at Fort Smith. 
 
Today’s Rangers celebrate the legacy of General Darby and many have attended the National Ranger Battalion Association Reunions through the years. 
 
 

     Sketch courtesy Ranger Rene Kepperling 5/Hq

                          All rights reserved

The histories of William Orlando Darby and his Rangers will always be intertwined as it is impossible to separate the two. Their union of less than two years shaped the lives of so many, like Randall Harris, Lloyd Pruitt and James McVay, who went on to raise families and enjoy long, fruitful lives. 
 

 
                                                Rangers Lead The Way Through the Generations of Their Families and Friends! 

 

                                                                                                                    Darby Watkins

                                                                                                           Nephew of William O. Darby

Darby Legacy Project