“He was the bravest man I ever knew.”
Those were the words Army General George S. Patton used to honor William Orlando Darby upon the latter’s death near the end of World War II. Famously combative and candid, Patton always meant what he said.
Darby was born and buried in Fort Smith, Arkansas, but the life he lived between the bookends of birth and death was exceptional. Today, his legacy remains strong and the many books, movies, streets, monuments and bases named in his honor show the mark he made in his 34 years.
The 1933 West Point graduate is best known for forming the 1st Ranger Battalion during WWII. Nicknamed “Darby’s Rangers,” the members of the elite commando unit trained in Scotland in early 1942 before taking part in the North Africa invasion later that year. He would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award, for his actions at Arzew, Algeria.
“Lt. Col. Darby struck with his force with complete surprise at dawn in the rear of a strongly fortified enemy position,” his citation read. “Always conspicuously at the head of his troops, he personally led assaults against the enemy line in the face of heavy machine gun and artillery fire.”
After fighting their way through Algeria and Tunisia, then-Lieutenant Colonel Darby looked to expand the Rangers into three battalions in July 1943. The soldiers of the first, third and fourth battalions spearheaded the invasion of Sicily.
Always on the offensive, the band of soldiers recruited for their physical skills and relentless determination often took big risks in battle. Some paid off. Others did not.
Darby’s Rangers landed unopposed at Anzio, Italy, in January 1944, but a week later the narrative changed. The first and third battalions suffered heavy losses at Ciserna and were consolidated into another unit. The fourth also suffered casualties but kept fighting as a Ranger force.
An oak leaf cluster—denoted as a second award—was added to Darby’s Distinguished Service Cross and he received a Silver Star for his leadership and courage during the Italian Campaign.
With a chest full of medals, the newly minted colonel was sent back to the States in April 1944 and served at the Pentagon for 11 months. Longing to get back in the fight, he returned to Europe in early 1945. When the 10th Mountain Division’s assistant commander was wounded in Italy, Darby stepped in. While planning for a mission on April 30, 1945, shrapnel from a German shell mortally wounded him. Germany surrendered two days later.
A stroke of misfortune took the life of one of the Army’s most revered and decorated leaders a mere 48 hours before the war in Europe ended. Darby was posthumously promoted to brigadier general weeks after later.
General Mark Clark said Darby “died exactly the way he would have had it—out in front of his men in hot pursuit of the enemy.”
While he died on the battlefield more than 70 years ago, his story lives on in many forms.
In 1958, a then-relatively unknown actor named James Garner played the lead role in Darby’s Rangers, a biopic that brought Darby’s wartime accomplishments to the silver screen. His memoirs were turned into a well-received book and his hometown of Fort Smith named schools in his honor.
But his most celebrated achievement—laying the groundwork for the modern Army Rangers—is what helps keep his story relevant. Even today, no soldier can earn a Ranger Tab without passing the Darby Phase of training first. In addition, one distinguished graduate of each Ranger School class, if they stand out among their elite peers, receive an award named for Darby.
It’s a fitting tribute to a man who spent his life leading the way.
Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.