FORT DRUM, N.Y. (March 22, 2022) -- The Fort Drum facility from where 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers deploy is named after the officer who led the first Army Rangers during World War II and was the 10th Mountain Division’s assistant commander during the campaign in Italy.
William O. Darby was born Feb. 9, 1911, in Fort Smith, Arkansas. An avid reader, Boy Scout and churchgoer, Darby had a goal of attending the U.S. Military Academy after graduating from Fort Smith High School in 1929.
Darby received his nomination letter from Congressman Otis Wingo to join the West Point Class of 1933, and he proved to be an exemplary cadet from the start. As cadet captain, Darby demonstrated his leadership abilities placed in charge of a company in the Corps of Cadets. He was ranked 177 out of 346 in his graduating class, and he was commissioned as a field artillery second lieutenant.
Darby’s first assignment was with 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division, at Fort Bliss, Texas. In July 1934, he served as a detachment commander within the division until he left for Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. After being promoted to captain, Darby served with the 80th Division at Camp Jackson, South Carolina.
While Germany was invading France in 1940, Darby was among more than 70,000 Soldiers who participated in field maneuvers at Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, to test the Army’s readiness for war.
In 1942, Darby served as aide-de-camp to Maj. Gen. Russell Hartle, commander of U.S. Army forces in Northern Ireland. Hartle nominated Darby to lead an elite combat unit modeled after the British Commandos, whose successes against the Germans caught the attention of U.S. Army officials.
Out of 2,000 volunteers, Darby recruited and trained 500 Soldiers in commando operations alongside their British counterparts in Scotland. The 1st Ranger Battalion was activated on July 9, 1942. Darby trained two more battalions in Algeria the following year, and the 1st, 3rd and 4th Ranger Battalions became known as “Darby’s Rangers.”
When America entered World War II, the 1st Ranger Battalion spearheaded Operation Torch – the Allied invasion of North Africa. Darby led the assault at Arzew, Algeria, which earned him a Distinguished Service Cross.
According to his award citation, Darby led the assault against heavy machine gun and artillery fire from the enemy and skillfully employed the use of hand grenades in close quarters fighting. On March 22, 1943, Darby directed his battalion in advance on Bon Hamean, capturing prisoners and destroying a battery of self-propelled artillery.
In Sicily, Darby was credited with using a 37-millimeter gun to repulse an attack, during which he destroyed an enemy tank.
He was quoted as saying, “Commanding the Rangers was like driving a team of very high-spirited horses. No effort was needed to get them to go forward. The problem was to hold them in check.”
In late January of 1944, Darby’s Rangers encountered a brutal counterattack during an assault on Cisterna in central Italy. Only six of the 767 Soldiers from the 1st and 3rd Battalions survived the ambush. McKay Jenkins wrote in his book “The Last Ridge,” that Darby was so devastated afterward that he broke down and cried. After commanding his troops throughout North Africa and Italy, he was ordered back to the U.S. for an assignment at the Pentagon.
Darby would return to Italy in early 1945 for an inspection tour of the European battlefronts with General of the Army Henry H. Arnold.
When Brig. Gen. Robinson Duff was wounded April 23, 1945, Darby replaced him as assistant commander of the 10th Mountain Division. He led “Task Force Darby” during the breakout of the 5th Army from the Po River Valley bridgehead to reach Torbole at the head of Lake Garda.
On April 30, 1945, Darby was meeting with Gen. David Ruffner, division artillery commander, and other officers in the 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment’s command post in Torbole. When they heard German shells exploding nearby, Darby and Ruffner decided to check on troops at the front lines. While getting into their vehicles, an 88-mm shell hit an adjacent building and shrapnel tore into Darby’s chest. He was killed instantly, along with Sgt. Maj. John Evans, with the 86th Regiment.
Later that day, a DUKW (Army amphibious vehicle) loaded with Soldiers from the 605th Field Artillery Battalion and their howitzers, drowned during an attempt to cross Lake Garda. Only one man survived, and the 25 who died that night would be the last Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to die in combat during the Italian campaign.
Darby was buried in a military cemetery outside of Cisterna, Italy, and he was reinterred at the Fort Smith National Cemetery in 1949. He was posthumously promoted to brigadier general on May 15, 1945.
Among his military awards, Darby received the Distinguished Service Cross with two oak leaf clusters, three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Russian Order of Kutuzov and the French Croix de Guerre. Darby was the most decorated graduate of the West Point Class of 1933.
Over the years, Darby has been memorialized and honored in the U.S. and abroad for his service during the war.
The Darby Legacy Monument was dedicated in 2016 at Cisterna Plaza in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The statue depicts Darby on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle designed for military use. There is also a Darby Junior High School in Fort Smith, a Camp Darby in Italy and numerous Army training fields named after him. A 40-mile Ranger Challenge is held annually in Vicenza, Italy, to honor Darby and the 25 Soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who were killed April 30, 1945.
Fort Drum’s Rapid Deployment Facility, Bldg. 2090 on Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield, was memorialized in honor of Darby on Oct. 22, 1999. Construction of the facility, modeled after the one at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, began construction in March 1998 and was completed in February 1999. The facility measures 44,000 square feet and can accommodate 1,200 Soldiers. It features a pallet processing bay, a large briefing room, 13 offices, a visitors’ lounge and sleeping quarters.
A quote from Darby was included in the facility dedication program, which hangs on a picture frame that reads:
“Onward we stagger, and if the tanks come, may God help the tank.”