Captain William Orlando Darby had a keen interest in the organization and fighting style of the British commando. The 31 year old Aide-de Camp of the 34th Infantry Division was selected to create and organize a light infantry fighting unit specializing in reconnaissance, raids and ambushes. For it, he chose a name that had echoed across battlefields for hundreds of years.
Forged In Fire: The Birth of the US Army Rangers
With permission to raise three battalions, Darby created a rigorous training regimen designed to weed out those lacking in the physical and mental toughness he knew his men needed. After all, his intent was for his men to lead from the front, tackling the toughest jobs and allowing a breakthrough by larger units to be less costly.
He put the word out in early 1942 and the first 1,600 rushed to sign up, most coming from his old division, the 34th. Only 600 were accepted. By May 1942, the Rangers of 1st Battalion – the original Darby’s Rangers – was designated. They began training for their first deployment at Carrickfergus, Ireland.
500 of the 600 men passed the training course, and soon 49 of them boarded ships with Canadian Infantry and British Commandos to test large scale invasion techniques in the fateful operation codenamed Jubilee…the raid on Dieppe.
The August 19th action proved to be a fiasco, as the Germans inflicted heavy casualties and forced the units involved to withdraw after a few hours, Hundreds of dead and POWs were left behind.
Ranger Lieutenant E.V Loustalot became the first American soldier to die in Europe after he was hit multiple times while scaling a cliff to destroy a machine gun nest. He and the other Rangers’ distinction of being the first American troops to land in occupied Europe became but an obscure footnote as the British and Canadians struggled to find scapegoats with one another.
1st Battalion’s next combat occurred during Operation Torch, the landings in North Africa, on November 8, 1942. Hitting the beach at night, the battalion surprised and destroyed enemy emplacements, then led the capture of Port Arzew in Algeria. This opened the way for the taking of the vital port city of Oran, helping prevent German resupply of the country.
Testing their skills further was Tunisia in early 1943, when they conducted their first raids and ambushes behind enemy lines. They undertook a 12 mile night march over rough terrain, surprising enemy forces from the rear, and opened the way for General George Patton’s forces to begin final operations in North Africa. This resulted in the Battle of El Guettar, where the 1st Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation. Alongside it all, often leading at the front, was Darby himself to receive several decorations.
Success proved to be the 1st’s undoing, strange enough, as time came to fill other battalions. 1st Battalion was divided into thirds, with 1/3 HQ personnel and 1 company each portioned out to the two new 3rd and 4th Ranger battalions led by Major Alvah Miller and Lieutenant Colonel Roy Murray, activated in May 1943 in Morocco and Tunisia, respectively.
With three battalions combined, along with a parachute battalion and a chemical battalion, it was decided to create the 6615th Ranger Force with Darby as commanding officer, turning leadership of 1st Battalion over to Major Jack Dobson. The veterans of the 1st trained the hundreds of new candidates in 6615th in preparation for the invasion of Italy, where the Rangers bloodiest and darkest day would soon be realized.
On September 9th, the 6615th landed before dawn near Salerno, Italy as part of Operation Avalanche, and though it fought brilliantly, the 6615th found itself hampered by the slow progress of the main invasion force. This delay extended a mission expected to last just two days into a bloody slugfest. The 6615th operated as standard infantry alongside other units, fighting its way across the plain of Naples and assaulting the Winter Line, a series of defensive lines the German’s established on the mainland.
As part of operation Shingle, the landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944 was intended to draw German forces away from the Winter line. The Ranger force came ashore before dawn encountering only 2 Germans, which they killed. After main Army forces landed the beachhead was expanded over the following days at a meager pace. This hesitancy allowed the German’s to regroup before a main thrust was attempted.
When it came, the Rangers found themselves being misused again as regular infantry. On January 30, the 1st and 3rd battalions moved across a large field to capture and hold the town of Cisterna, where they were ambushed by infantry and tanks of the Herman Goering Division and elements of the 1st Parachute and 15th PanzerGrenadier Divisions, camouflaged in and around the area.
The lightly armed units were slaughtered as they sought shelter in a long drainage ditch.
Attempts to reach them with the 4th battalion were in vain, and when it was over 7 hours later, though they’d fought hard and gave a good accounting of themselves; only 6 of the 767 Rangers involved made it back to friendly lines. The rest were killed or captured.
1st and 3rd battalions ceased to exist.
The 6615th was disbanded a short while later, as was the 4th Rangers, and became consigned to history.
Darby, now a Colonel, was reassigned as Assistant Division Commander to the 10th Mountain Division in Italy.
Meanwhile, the 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions rose at Camp Forrest, Tennessee and were activated in September 1943, ready to write their own chapter as they participated in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.
On the morning of June 6th, 1944 grapnel rockets trailing long ropes streaked from approaching landing craft to plummet and grip the rocky summit of Pointe Du Hoc. This began the most famous mission in ranger history.
225 men of the 2nd battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, scaled the 100 foot high cliffs under fire to crest and assault positions containing 5 howitzers, which could threaten Omaha and Utah beaches, or so they thought. The guns had been moved further back and were fortunately found and destroyed a short time later by Lieutenant Leonard Lomell, whom historian Stephen Ambrose later noted that “Apart from Eisenhower, was the single individual most responsible for the success of D-Day.”
Fighting wasn’t over yet, though. The Rangers had to defend against determined counterattacks which in the end left just 90 capable of combat when they were relieved 2 days later.
2nd Rangers experience after landing at Omaha beach was often overshadowed by Pointe Du Hoc until 1998’s Saving Private Ryan brought them attention. The reality is more interesting than Hollywood’s portrayal.
Supposed to come ashore at Pointe Du Hoc but diverted due to delays, some 500 Rangers of the 2nd (2 companies) and 5th battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Max Schnieder landed at different sectors of Omaha, having been thrown off course by strong tides and pinned by relentless fire.
At one section of the beach, a small group organized themselves and made their way up the bluff, among the first American’s to get off the sand. More followed, along with regular infantry elements, as they reached the village of Vierville-sur-mer some hours later, just behind the beach. This action, along with naval gunfire, helped open a route off the bloodiest sector.
Not long after the first Rangers landed, another story developed when a Ranger commander, seeing the carnage taking place on the beach, ordered his landing craft element to veer right to deposit them near a rocky cliff called Pointe Raz de la Percee’. They endured many casualties as they made their way to the rock face, where they spread out looking for ways to get up. They found a narrow path up through the face and climbed to the top using ropes and bayonets, and began taking German’s under fire, silencing a position that was sweeping the beach with murderous fire.
It was during the attack on Omaha that the Ranger motto was born, when Brigadier General Norman Cota of the 29th Infantry Division asked Max Schnieder what outfit he belonged to.
He replied, “5th Rangers, Sir!”
Cota said, “Well, Goddammit, if your Rangers lead the way!” From that ‘Rangers Lead The Way!‘ was adopted.
It is said in hindsight that the presence of the Rangers in such numbers and their quick penetrations on Omaha proved decisive in helping turn the fortunes of battle towards the Allies.
On the other side of the world, the Japanese found themselves staring down the muzzles of the 6th Ranger Battalion. Raised in July, 1944 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci, and leading the invasion of the Philippines on October 18th, 6th Battalion captured 3 small islands of the coast of Leyte, and planted the first American flag on the soil since 1942.
Later, on January 10, 1945, they landed on Lingayen Gulf beach in preparation for the invasion of the main island of Luzon. Elements then captured a smaller island to secure entrance of the Gulf for the main landing force.
After weeks of fighting inland, the 6th was tasked with what would become their signature mission. The raid on Cabanatuan POW camp, 60 miles north of Manila.
On January 28th, units departed for the camp led by Captain Robert Prince and Lt. Col. Mucci. On the 30th they hit the camp after dark, rushing through the compound, killing over 500 enemy soldiers and recovering another 500 Americans in the most successful military rescue in U.S. history.
In the final months of the conflict, for all the accolades Rangers on both sides of the world had received, there remained a final, cruel chapter. Colonel Darby, the man who laid the foundation of the modern American Rangers, never lived to witness the end of the war. In Italy, on April 30th 1945, as he was issuing orders for a pending attack, an artillery shell exploded nearby, killing him and a Sergeant instantly.
William Darby was 34.
Just two days later, German forces in Italy surrendered.
When the war in Europe ended on May 7th, there were 87 men of the original Darby’s Rangers still alive.