They were not to be called Commandos. The Brits had dibs on that name. And they had earned it. Our special forces would train in Northern Ireland at the start of the Second World War, and while they might have British trainers and instructors, they'd have to be called something else. The brass would choose a name. They chose Rangers.
This outfit would also need a commander. More than a commander -- a leader, one who understood that this special force would have to be, well, special. Its members would always take the offensive, springing on the enemy as if from under the earth, materializing from nowhere, striking first confusion, and then terror into the enemy. Such a leader would have to be a leader. A man of action, someone who could inspire the men under his command, and have them surprise the enemy at every turn. He would have to be an American version of Britain's own Orde Wingate, who'd fought for the Empire, God and The Right around the world. He would have to be . . .
William O. Darby of Fort Smith, Ark., West Point, the United States Army Artillery, graduate of the artillery school at Fort Sill (now the artillery and missile school), and a soldier as visionary as he was brave.
Now there's a movement afoot to erect a statue of Brigadier General Darby in his hometown. The only question some of us have is why it's taken so long.
Bill Darby of Fort Smith, Ark., a captain back then, organized his Rangers in Northern Ireland in 1942, trained them as the British did their Commandos, and made sure each man in his command had what it takes, or would take. (Suggested reading: "Onward We Charge" by H. Paul Jeffers.)
Darby's Rangers -- for that is what they would soon be called -- would be selected for their physical condition, resourcefulness, and not just bravery but ruthlessness. Could they run 10 miles in full gear, then fight a battle? That's what it would take to do the job. Nobody said it would be easy being a Ranger. It still isn't.
Once his first troopers were trained, they were unleashed in the North African campaign. These were Americans who fought the American way and what had been the American way ever since the Revolution, or even the French and Indian War, always on the offensive. They took risks. Big risks.
An officer who went looking for Darby after the Rangers had established one of their beachheads found a GI in a Ranger uniform, and asked: "Do you know where I can find Colonel Darby?" A slow grin crossed the Ranger's face as he answered, "You'll never find him this far back."