William Orlando Darby is one of the icons of the Army’s Special Operations community. He organized, trained, and led the first of the Army’s Ranger Battalions during World War II. He fought in North Africa, Sicily, and mainland Italy. Later, as the Assistant Division Commander of the 10th Mountain Division, he was killed in action and subsequently promoted to Brigadier General. He was just 34 years old at the time of his death.

Darby was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas on February 8, 1911. He was a 1933 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry, at Fort Bliss, Texas as a supply officer.

He followed that up with assignments in New Mexico with the 1st Cavalry Division, and the Field Artillery School at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. Later in 1940, he was promoted to Captain and assigned to the 80th Infantry Division at Ft. Benning, GA. 

When the U.S. entered World War II, the Army was woefully unprepared. There was no Special Operations capability, no intelligence service and a general lack of equipment and training. Brigadier General Lucian Truscott, the liaison officer to the British Army, floated the idea to Army Chief of Staff George Marshall in May of 1942 that “we undertake immediately the organization of an American unit along [British] Commando lines.” 

Rangers preparing for the D-Day and the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

The idea was that the 1st Ranger Battalion would only be a temporary organization to disseminate combat experience to new American infantry units. The battalion would temporarily attach Rangers to British Commando units when they conducted their hit and run raids of German-held countries in Europe. Then, the Rangers, now with combat experience, would return to the army and spread out to share their newfound experience. Additional Rangers, having undertaken British Commando training, would return to the United States to train more troops.

Truscott chose the name “Rangers” for two reasons: Firstly, the Brits had already taken the name “Commandos.” Secondly, the Americans during the French and Indian War had organized “Rogers’ Rangers” under the command of Robert Rogers. Truscott had seen the recent film of Rogers’ exploits, “Northwest Passage” with Spencer Tracy portraying the Colonial leader and Robert Rogers was already a famous name in American history. 

Darby was selected as the new commander for this Ranger battalion and promoted to Major. Darby was already in Northern Ireland with the first American troops to go to Europe. He immediately called for volunteers and got men from the V Corps, the 1st Armored Division, 34th Infantry Division, and other smaller units.

Darby began his initial selection and assessment of 575 volunteers and about a month later had 473 officers and men. They then began in July of 1942 a very intensive training program in Scotland with the British Commandos as their trainers. The Brits steeped their American cousins in the tenets of Special Operations and the Rangers quickly became masters at forced marches, patrolling, hand-to-hand combat, raids, and small boat operations.