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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
All Rangers of the original six battalions continue to live wherever
any Sons and Daughters and
Ranger Battalion Association members
Rangers Lead The Way Through the Generations of Their Families and
Nephew of William O. Darby