William Orlando Darby (8 February 1911 - 30 April 1945) was an officer in the United States Army during World War II. Darby led the famous Darby's Rangers which evolved into the US Army Rangers and was also made famous as a major motion picture starring the American actor James Garner in the role of Darby.
William Orlando Darby was born at Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 8, 1911. He graduated from the United States Military Academy with a Bachelor of Science Degree and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery on June 13, 1933.
His first assignment was as assistant executive and supply officer with the 82nd Field Artillery at Fort Bliss, Texas. In July 1934, he moved to Cloudcroft, New Mexico where he commanded the 1st Cavalry Division Detachment. He received intensive artillery training from September 1937 to June 1938 while attending Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. On September 9, 1940, he was promoted to the grade of Captain and subsequently served with the 80th Division at Camp Jackson, South Carolina; Ft. Benning, Georgia; Camp Beauregard, Louisiana and Ft. Des Moines, Iowa.
World War II was largely responsible for Captain Darby’s rapid promotion to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel. He was with the first U.S. troops sent to Northern Ireland at the outbreak of the war, and during his stay there, he became interested in the British Commando groups.
His interest was such that, when the U.S. Army decided to establish its Ranger units, he was put in charge of the organization and training of its original units.
“Darby’s Rangers” trained with their British Counterparts in Scotland and in 1943, the 1st Ranger Battalion made its first assault at Arzew, North Africa. As a result, Lt. Col. Darby was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
The following is from the citation presented:
“Lt. Col. Darby struck with his force with complete surprise at dawn in the rear of a strongly fortified enemy position. 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, establishing the fury of the Ranger attack by his skillful employment of hand grenades in close quarter fighting. On March 22, Lt. Col. Darby directed his battalion in advance on Bon Hamean, capturing prisoners and destroying a battery of self propelled artillery.”
The 1st Ranger Battalion saw further action in the battles to occupy Italy. An Oak Leaf Cluster to the Distinguished Service Cross was conferred upon Lt. Col. Darby in 1943 for his gallantry in Sicily:
“Lt. Col. Darby, with the use of one 37mm gun, which he personally manned, managed not only to repulse an enemy attack, but succeeded with this weapon in destroying one tank, while two others were accounted for by well directed hand grenade fire.”
Also in 1943, he received the Silver Star for his action”
“Without regard for his personal safety, the day previous to a raid, he reconnoitered enemy positions and planned the attack which he led the following morning. The thorough organization and successful attack led by Lt. Col. Darby revealed his initiative, courage, and devotion to duty which is a credit to the Armed Forces of the United States.”
In April 1944, having been promoted to Colonel, he returned to Washington, D.C. for duty with the Army Ground Forces and later with the War Department General Staff. In March 1945, he returned to Italy for an observation tour with General Arnold.
On April 23, 1945, Brigadier General Robinson E. Duff, Assistant Division Commander of the 10th Infantry Mountain Division, was wounded and, voluntarily, Col. Darby took charge of the unit.
“Task Force Darby” spearheaded the breakout of the Fifth Army from the Po River Valley bridgehead and reached Tarbole at the head of Lake Garda. While Col. Darby was issuing orders for the attack on Trento to cut off a German retreat, an 88mm shell burst in the middle of the assembled officers and NCOs. Killing Col. Darby and a Sergeant and wounding several others.
Relying on the inspiration of their late commander, “Task Force Darby” continued on with their mission. Two days later, the entire German Field Command surrendered.
Col. Darby was 34 at the time of his death; and papers for his promotion had already been sent to Washington. On the date of his death, he was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General.
In addition to the awards conferred upon him by the U.S. Army, he received the following foreign awards: French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, Russian Order of Kutuzov (3rd degree) and the British Distinguished Service Order.
Darby was killed by an 88mm artillery fragment on 30 April 1945 (the same day Hitler chose to kill himself) while attached to the US 10th Mountain Division near Torbole, Italy. Darby was posthumously awarded the rank of Brigadier General and is buried at Fort Smith National Cemetery. He was the only US Army officer so honored in WW2.
Darby's records, medals, military records, and uniforms are on display at the Old Fort Museum in Fort Smith, and his boyhood home is open for tours. One U.S. Army installation is named for Darby: Camp Darby, near Ft. Benning, Georgia, which is home to the second part of Benning Phase for Ranger School. Two U.S. Army installations in Europe were named for Darby: W.O. Darby Kaserne in Fürth, Germany (closed in 1995) and Camp Darby, near Livorno, Italy, which remains in use today.
In 1958 Darby was the subject of the motion picture Darby's Rangers, starring James Garner (some assume the 30-year-old Garner was too young for the role, but Darby was only 34 when he died). Wayde Preston played a character based on Darby in Dino De Laurentiis's Anzio (1968).
A book about Darby's Rangers was published in July 2007, titled Onward We Charge: The Heroic Story of Darby's Rangers in World War II, by H. Paul Jeffers.