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."
Captain, then Major, then Colonel Darby was not the kind of officer who yelled, "Forward!" but rather "Follow me!" The Colonel didn't order his Rangers into the fight, he led them into it. A general named Patton called him the bravest man he ever knew, riding into the jaws of death on his motorcycle, steel pot or maybe just helmet liner at a jaunty angle, and dishing out sheer, unmitigated Hell to any German foolish enough to get in the way of Darby's Rangers.
"Onward we stagger," their commander would tell his Rangers, "and if the tanks come, may God help the tanks."
Lest we forget, these men made history as Darby's Rangers before they became known as just U.S. Rangers. They were something out of the Wild West. And why not? Never mind what Kansas City may claim; the West begins at Fort Smith. Just as William Orlando Darby did.
His men didn't have Hollywood looks or the most polished manners. Darby's Rangers didn't need either. Their commander needed toughs. And he got them. From every walk and gutter of American life. One of his first Rangers was a bookkeeper for a whorehouse in civilian life, another a lion tamer. They weren't clean-shaven or spit-shined. They were killers. And would need to be. A fellow officer described Darby's Rangers as cutthroats. No doubt they were, and did.
Cutthroats? Their commander took the comment as a compliment. Which may say all you need to know about Darby's Rangers -- and him.
Colonel Darby would be killed April 30, 1945, near Trento, Italy, when a German shell burst overhead -- the same day an Austrian corporal named Hitler would take his own life in a bunker underneath Berlin. An American guerrilla fighter named Darby was a much bigger loss to the world -- the free world. But never mind that. Darby's Rangers were so well prepared, they could do their job without him. Two days later, German forces in Italy formally surrendered.
General Darby -- he was promoted after his death -- was dead, but his spirit went marching, rampaging, on. Darby's Rangers would survive him. To this day. They still keep watch in parts of the world that very much need watching.
Now come Liz and Joe Armstrong of Fort Smith. They're organizing a committee to get a statue of William O. Darby in their town and his. They hope to place it in Cisterna Park. Cisterna, Italy, is the town where the Rangers sustained heavy losses under Colonel Darby.
The Armstrongs had an inspired idea: The statue could depict Colonel Darby on a motorbike, his own warhorse in that conflict.
Maybe whoever designs the exhibit can leave room for a small plaque at the base that says only:
"The bravest man I ever knew."
--George S. Patton.