ARKIES AT WAR

WILLIAM O. DARBY of FORT SMITH

Darby HomeThis is the boyhood home of William O. Darby. The house sits at 311 General Darby Street (formerly East 8th Street) in the old residential section of Fort Smith. When the United States entered the second world war Darby, then stationed in Northern Ireland, was given the task of forming a U.S. special forces unit modelled on (and initially trained by) the British Commandos. This new elite soldier was called Ranger and the order creating him was General Order #1.

General Truscott, Darby's superior, explained that the name Ranger was chosen, "because the name Commandos rightfully belonged to the British, and we sought a name more typically American. It was therefore fit that the organization that was destined to be the first of the American Ground Forces to battle Germans on the European continent should be called Rangers in compliment to those in American history who exemplified the high standards of courage, initiative, determination and ruggedness, fighting ability and achievement."

Before the existence of Darby's Rangers there was a group of scouts and irregulars known as rangers who fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War. There are also the famed Texas Rangers who have their own glorious past, and no doubt the official story is that Darby's Rangers trace the name to one or both of those traditions; but tucked away in the corner of William Orlando Darby--a Man to Remember published by the Darby Foundation is another precedent in William O. Darby's life for the name Ranger.

Here's the story from Ross Rhodes, a boyhood acquaintance: Ross asks Bill what Bill does on weekends and Bill tells him that he goes on camping trips with the Boy Rangers of America, which is an outdoorsy group something like the Boy Scouts of America, except that dues are only five cents a week and you don't have to lay out a lot of cash for uniforms or merit badges (a significant factor in depression-era Arkansas). Just how much that childhood experience had to do with the later selection of "Rangers" as the name for the Army's elite unit is not clear. It's even possible that the name was chosen without consulting Darby at all. Nevertheless, Darby was a Ranger long before he joined the army.

The ground floor of the house keeps memorabilia of Darby's military career, letters, records and the office of the Darby Foundation. I didn't go upstairs, but the brochure states that had I gone up there I would have found "information on worldwide special operational forces and a research center for current peacemaking and peacekeeping activities." Okayfine.

Every article I read on the WWII Rangers tossed off victory after victory and battle after battle, mentioning them almost in passing as if to say, "'tweren't nothin'." And then after cursory and fragmentary hints at severe ass-whuppin's the Rangers foisted on the fascists, up comes the name Cisterna and the article grinds to a halt. In every account more space is devoted to Cisterna than to any five other battles combined. On the thousand-fingered hand that counts Ranger triumphs, the defeat at Cisterna stands out like a very sore thumb. It must have been a defining moment for Darby and for the Rangers.

Here's the short version of the story. After Anzio, two-day-old intelligence reported that there were only token forces at Cisterna. The Rangers were ordered to advance up the Mussolini Canals, brush the bad guys aside and take the town. Darby wanted to reconnoiter but was overruled on the grounds that time is short and the Italian campaign is behind schedule and there is nothing wrong with our intelligence so why don't you just relax!

Well, it turned out a lot had happened in Cisterna in the two days since that intelligence report was fresh. A couple of crack German units, the Herman Goering Division and elements of the 26th Panzergrenadier (that's German for "mechanized infantry") had been moved in and just happened to be positioned on either side of the canal. The first and the third Ranger battalions were massacred. I infer that Cisterna is to Ranger as Alamo is to Texan.

Darby at Commando SchoolAs you cross the bridge into Fort Smith you'll notice a sign stating that Fort Smith's sister city is Cisterna, Italy.

Darby, never one to lead from the rear, was always up where the shooting was. After an active, successful, dangerous and charmed frontline tour in Europe, Darby was rotated to a stateside desk. He missed the action, though, and got himself reassigned to mopping-up operations back in Italy. A freak artillery shell, a single stray shot apparently from nowhere, exploded above him and a group of eight others while he was in a rear area. He and another man in that group were killed. The date was April 30, 1945, the same day Hitler shot himself.

Two days later, all Axis troops in Italy surrendered. Six days after that, Field Marshall Keitel signed Germany's final surrender. A week later, President Truman promoted Darby to Brigadier General.

RTJ--6/1/98


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