American military officer William Orlando Darby (1911–1945) was the founder of an elite commando unit called the U.S. Army First Ranger Battalion, informally known as Darby's Rangers. After playing key roles in several World War II battles in North Africa and Italy, the unit has continued its operations since the war as the U.S. Army Rangers.
The military career of William Orlando Darby was marked in equal parts by organizational ability and extraordinary personal heroism. He himself led the attacks he ordered; when an officer visited his command unit behind the front lines during World War II and asked about Darby's whereabouts, he was told by a soldier (as quoted by Paul Greenberg of the Chicago Tribune) that “You'll never find him this far back.” Darby not only created the U.S. Army battalion know as Darby's Rangers but trained them and refined their operations, learning from their failures. He led the Rangers during one of the major U.S. defeats of the Italian campaign, Operation Shingle, a battle to control the Italian seacoast town of Anzio. Darby was killed in action in 1945, and his legacy is widely recognized within the U.S. military, even if less so by the general public.
Darby was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, on February 8, 1911, the son of a print shop owner and his wife. He attended schools in Fort Smith, graduating from high school in 1929. Classmates remembered him as highly self-confident, although not as having particular military ambitions. An article about West Point cadet life in a magazine called Mentor fired Darby's imagination, however, and he began to seek out a path toward enrolling there. He was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after receiving the required nomination from U.S. Representative Otis Wingo, a friend of one of his relatives. He graduated from West Point in 1933 after serving as commander of a company the school's newspaper characterized, according to Darby biographer Paul Jeffords, as being filled with “renegades, mavericks, and misfits.”
After being commissioned as a second lieutenant, Darby joined the 82nd Field Artillery unit in Fort Bliss, Texas. At the time, the 82nd was the only remaining artillery unit in the army to use horses, and he served as its assistant executive and supply officer. In 1934 he moved to Cloudcroft, New Mexico, where he became commander of the First Cavalry Division Detachment. From 1937 to 1938 he attended the Field Artillery School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 1940 Darby was promoted to the rank of captain, transferred to the Army's 80th Division, and was based at Camp Jackson, South Carolina; Ft. Benning, Georgia; Camp Beauregard, Louisiana; and Ft. Des Moines, Iowa. During this period he was trained in amphibious operations. Darby received orders sending him to Hawai'i in November of 1941, but after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, his assignment changed. As aidede-camp to General Russell P. Hartle, commander of the Army's 34th Infantry Division, Darby was sent overseas and joined that force in Northern Ireland in 1942.
Amid training, in mid-August 1942, a group of about 50 Rangers participated in a joint U.S.-Canadian raid on the French town of Dieppe that was designed to test the feasibility of capturing a French port for a short period. The raid was a failure, with all Allied forces involved taking heavy casualties, but Darby gained insights from the operation regarding planning and intelligence. In October of 1942, the Rangers joined Operation TORCH, the joint Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, which was then controlled by German-allied Italian and Vichy French forces with military support from Germany. At an Allied landing at Arzew in what is now Algeria, Darby and the 1st Infantry Division saw military action for the first time.
As part of a two-pronged attack on Arzew, Darby and his Rangers walked for four miles along the dark Algerian coast, then launched an attack against a hilltop fortification called the Batterie du Nord. By early morning, they had completely routed the site's Vichy French defenders. An impressed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of Operation Torch, attempted to promote Darby to the rank of brigadier general, but the captain refused the promotion. Although Darby told Eisenhower that he did not feel ready, his disinclination may have been due to the strong bond he had built with his Rangers force. Later in 1942 Darby led a raid against an Italian position at Sened Station, and in March of 1943 he commanded a major operation against the Italian army stationed at El Guettar, in what is now Tunisia.
At El Guettar Darby devised a daring sneak attack. After blackening their faces, he and his Rangers traveled a narrow 12-mile path in the dark and then took their position in the rear of the Italian forces. The stratagem succeeded and resulted in the capture of more than 1,000 Nazi-allied forces. Although German troops counterattacked, the Rangers repelled a series of German strikes until they were relieved days later. Their success in North Africa earned Darby's Rangers a Presidential Unit Citation from U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt.
As a result of this success, Darby was asked to train and then to lead two new Ranger units for Operation Husky, the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily. From the Italian mainland and heading the 1st and 4th Ranger battalions with Major Roy Murray, Darby landed and launched an attack on the Italian port of Gela, gaining control of its coastal batteries and personally driving off a German counterattack with a large anti-tank gun and a machine gun. In the midst of the attack on Gela, which soon expanded up the coast, Darby met U.S. Lieutenant General George S. Patton, who asked him to indicate the location of the enemy counterattack. According to Zimmerman, Darby responded, “Which one do you want to see, Gen. Patton?” Ultimately, the Allies held Gela and Patton honored Darby with a Distinguished Service Cross and the offer of a promotion and new command. Darby once again declined. After another success, during the Allied invasion of the Salerno area in September 1943, he led American and British commandos in seizing the Sorrento Peninsula and beating back a strong German counterattack. Cut off from support, they held their positions along a rocky beachhead for almost three weeks. After this triumph, Darby finally accepted a promotion to colonel.
In December 1943, Rangers were used as line infantry against a German offensive in Venafro. Confronted by continuous fire in harsh winter mountain conditions, the 1st Ranger Battalion lost hundreds of men, most from exposure. The loss of so many men was quickly replaced by enthusiastic new volunteers, but the lack of time to train the new Rangers meant that the force was weakened.
Although Darby blamed himself for the carnage, he was soon thrust back into a command role by Major General John P. Lucas. As leader of the U.S. 179th Infantry Regiment, he became involved in a desperate battle against numerically superior German forces to retain control of the Anzio beachhead. Darby restored morale among the beleaguered American troops, and the German attack was repulsed.
An exhausted Darby returned to the United States and joined the War Department General Staff in Washington. He hated the desk job, however, and made several requests to return to the European theater. In March of 1945, his wish was granted: he was given an assignment evaluating air support of ground combat in Europe. While he was visiting the Tenth Mountain Division army unit in Italy in this capacity, the unit's commander was wounded in battle, and Darby stepped up to replace him. On April 30, 1945, then age 34, he was hit by a German artillery shell in Torbole, near Trento, in northern Italy, and killed. German leader Adolf Hitler committed suicide on the same day, and two days later Germany surrendered. Darby was posthumously promoted to brigadier general.
Darby was initially buried in Italy, but in 1949 his body was returned to the United States and interred at the Fort Smith National Cemetery, near his boyhood home. Among his many commendations were two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, a Purple Heart, and a Combat Infantry Badge as well as several honors from foreign governments, including that of the Soviet Union. A U.S. Army troop ship was named the General William O. Darby, and a school in Cisterna, sister city to Port Smith, is named for him. According to Paul Greenberg of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Patton remembered Darby as “the bravest man I ever knew.”
Jeffers, H. Paul, Onward We Change: The Heroic Story of Darby's Rangers in World War II, New American Library, 2007.
Chicago Tribune, January 15, 2013, Paul Greenberg, “Darby Rides Again.”
Darby Foundation, http://www.virtualartzone.com/thedarbyfoundation/rangersoc.htm (September 1, 2017), “William O. Darby: 1911–1945.”
Defense Media Network, https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/col-william-o-darby-the-ranger-who-led-the-way (September 1, 2017), “Col. William O. Darby: The Ranger Who Led the Way.”
U.S. Army Garrison Italy, http://www.usag.livorno.army.mil/News030.asp (September 1, 2017), “The Man behind the Naming of Camp Darby.”□