General William O. Darby – early leader of the Army Rangers and a true hero


“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible,” said Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Such words describe the life of Gen. William O. Darby, a hero of World War II and an Arkansas native. The integrity and courage of Darby was an important contribution to the American victory and the future of the U. S. Army through his efforts leading the Army Rangers.

William Orlando Darby was born in 1911 in Fort Smith. His father made a respectable living as a printer. He attended local schools as a child and graduated from Fort Smith High School in 1929. Darby earned an appointment to the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, where he was respected among his fellow cadets.

After Darby’s graduation from West Point in 1933, he was assigned as a supply officer with a field artillery unit at Fort Bliss, Texas. A year later, he was assigned to command a mounted artillery unit in New Mexico. He attended the field artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 1937, and spent the next several years moving from post to post. In 1940, he was promoted to captain.

The entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941, led to a massive reorganization of the army. The success of British commandos early in World War II had inspired American leadership to similarly create a new, specialized fighting unit. Ranger units were part of an army tradition that found its roots in the American Revolution. Sometimes called “partisans,” these early Ranger units were known for their mobility and relative self-sufficiency. The army, however, had not had a formal Ranger unit since the Civil War. Darby, having worked with the commandos starting after his arrival in January 1942, was tapped to organize and train an American unit with a promotion to major. He organized the 1st Ranger Battalion in Northern Ireland in July.

‘“Darby’s Rangers,” as they came to be called, saw their first combat in North Africa. They conducted a series of daring night raids in November 1942, as American forces stormed into Nazi-occupied Algeria. Darby led the raid himself, braving machine gun fire and grenades to win the day. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.

A few months later, as American and British forces in neighboring Tunisia linked up, Darby’s Rangers were sent to the new front lines. The success of the 1st Ranger Battalion prompted the army to expand these units. As a result, by early 1943, Darby, now a lieutenant colonel, had organized and trained the 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions. These Ranger units played important roles in the last battles that swept the Nazis out of Africa.

With the invasion of Sicily months later, the Rangers played a crucial role in the landing at the beaches. Darby’s Rangers were also the first to land on the mainland of Italy in September. Darby and his forces continued their push through Italy. At Cisterna, just south of Rome, Darby’s forces battled the Nazis for days. Americans would not give in, and the city fell to American forces on March 25. The battle was won, but 96 percent of the city lay in ruins. The people of Cisterna, so grateful for American efforts to liberate their city, would later name a school after Darby and in 1984, became a sister city to Fort Smith, Darby’s hometown.

After the battle, Darby was promoted to full colonel. He was reassigned to the general staff at the Pentagon. He returned to Italy a year later on an inspection tour in the war’s final weeks. On April 23, Gen. Robinson Duff of the 10th Mountain Division was injured, and Darby assumed command. The Nazis put up bitter resistance as they retreated. Darby in response was planning to cut off their retreat and capture their remaining forces. On April 30, in the midst of the fight, an artillery shell exploded, killing Darby instantly.

The last Nazi forces in Italy surrendered two days later. The entire Nazi regime surrendered on May 7.

On May 15, the army posthumously promoted Darby to brigadier general. His bravery and contributions to the military were not forgotten. In 1955, Fort Smith’s junior high school was renamed in honor of Darby, with the mascot changing to the Rangers to further honor the general. The army itself bestowed many honors on Darby.

Army camps in Italy and Germany were named for him after World War II, as well as a Ranger camp at Fort Benning, Georgia. Ranger training would continue after the war, producing generations of elite army troops. The Ranger School now offers the William O. Darby Award for Ranger trainees who show the best leadership qualities.

Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by e-mail at kbridges@southark.edu.