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William Orlando Darby (8 February 1911 – 30 April 1945) was born, raised, and educated in Fort Smith, Arkansas. After completing high school in 1929, he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and upon graduation on 13 June 1933, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant to the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry. He was promoted captain 1 October 1940 and received amphibious training. Darby was assigned aide-de-camp to Major General Russell P. Hartle (26 June 1889 – 23 November 1961) in command of the 34th Infantry Division. The 34th deployed to Scotland in January 1942 and Darby was chosen to organize and train an elite commando unit. Promoted to major, Darby saw the First United States Ranger Battalion activated on 9 July 1942. Darby and the Rangers participated in Operation Torch in North Africa. Tactical successes for the Ranger Battalion in Algeria proved the value of the unit. Darby's citation for his Distinguished Service Cross, awarded for his actions in Algeria aptly described his leadership: "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." Next, Darby was tasked with expanding the Rangers. Eventually five battalions would be activated for the European Theater of Operations and a sixth for the Pacific Theater of Operations. The 1st, 3rd, and 4th spearheaded the invasions of Sicily and Italy. After landing at Anzio on 22 January 1944, the 1st and 3rd were given the crossroads of Cisterna, Italy as their objective.
A Roman historian first mentioned the numerous patrician villas located near the site of present-day site of Cisterna. Cisterna means reservoir, water being a vital commodity on the Appian Way (road to Rome). A small village named Tres Tabernae (Three Taverns) near the location is mentioned in the Bible. In the Book of Acts, chapter 28, verse 15, the Apostle Paul (c. A.D. 2-6 – c. 62-64) – commonly known as Saint Paul – mentioned the post station on his journey to prison in Rome.
Modern day Cisterna, benefitted for a time under the programs of Benito Mussolini (29 July 1883 – 28 April 1945), who ordered much of the surrounding marshland drained resulting in productive farm acreage. The German military would undo most of this during Word War II in an effort to frustrate American and British troops in the area. Today, Europe and other parts of the world enjoy the region of Cisterna's bounty in Kiwi fruit.
World War II brought the action to the old crossroads and farming community with the Allied invasion at Anzio in January of 1944. British and American forces successfully landed, but soon found themselves encircled by German troops who according to intelligence reports would be undermanned, unmotivated, and inaccessible to the area of operation. Intelligence reports were wrong in every case.
On 29 January 1944, elements of Colonel William O. Darby's Ranger Battalions were tasked with infiltrating the "assumed" lightly defended German lines and seizing the crossroads at Cisterna. According to the plan, the Rangers would be supported by the U.S. 7th Infantry, one of the oldest active regiments in the Army, nicknamed the "Cotton Balers" for their part in the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson (15 March 1767 – 8 June 1845), and the U.S. 15th Regiment who were called the "old China Hands" owing to their service during the Boxer Rebellion in China. The 7th incidentally once garrisoned Darby's hometown of Fort Smith. At dawn on January 30, the full details of the disaster, which occurred the night before were clear. Of 767 Rangers committed to action, 761 died in the fighting or were captured. The fight for Cisterna did not end until May 1944. Darby was sent home for a stint at the Pentagon. He served as a section chief of the General Staff's War Plans Division for eleven months before being reassigned to the field in Italy. Assigned to the 10th Mountain Division, he took over for Brigadier General Robinson E. Duff (18 January 1895 – 26 September 1979) when he was wounded. Darby died 30 April 1945 on the front lines, at Lake Garda, near Verona in Northern Italy, the victim of a German artillery attack. German forces surrendered only two days later. On 14 May 1945, Darby was posthumously promoted to brigadier general. Darby received two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, three Purple Hearts, a Combat Infantry Badge and the British Distinguished Service Order. He also received the U.S. Legion of Merit, the Russian Order of Kutuzov and the French Croix de Guerre. General George S. Patton (11 November 1885 – 21 December 1945) called Darby "The bravest man I ever knew."
Darby's legacy has been celebrated and remembered in a number of ways. A U.S. troopship the USNS General William O. Darby was named for him, numerous streets, schools in Cisterna, Italy and his hometown of Fort Smith, Arkansas bear his name as well. The senior high school he attended is now Darby Junior High School and has the mascot Rangers. Other training fields and airstrips at military posts are also named for him.
Darby was first buried near Cisterna, Italy but was reinterred in the Fort Smith National Cemetery on 11 March 1949. On 30 April 2016, a statue commemorating his accomplishments was erected in Cisterna Park in downtown Fort Smith. Joe Armstrong, a retired Ranger and wife Liz led an effort to get funding for the 2,500-pound monument. As seen in the photograph, the bronze memorial statue depicts Darby on a motorcycle and gesturing a "forward" signal with his right arm. The Darby Legacy Project called upon artists requesting bids, then met with six separate artists to discuss concepts. The group members eventually selected Little Rock sculptor Kevin Kresse. The total cost for the monument was around $250,000. Guest Speakers at the dedication included Dr. Darren McKinney, principal of Darby Junior High School at the time and also chairman of the Darby Legacy Project; Major General William Wofford, a retired adjutant general with the Arkansas National Guard, a former Ranger himself along with his son; and Darby Watkins, the nephew of General Darby, who is also the family's historian and son of General Darby's younger sister, who was born in 1928 when he was 17 years old. As Brigadier General William Orlando Darby led by his example, his Rangers continue today to "Lead the Way."
On this day, 30 April 2022, we commemorate the 77th anniversary of the death of Brigadier General William Orlando Darby of the U.S. Army Rangers and mark six years since the unveiling of a statue in his honor erected at Fort Smith, Arkansas.