It was Darby Day in Fort Smith, Ark., one Friday this snowy month, and the students at Darby Junior High held their annual observance in honor of the school's namesake.
Just who was Bill Darby of Fort Smith, Ark.? He was a brigadier general, a West Pointer, and a legend. He wasn't just a U.S. Army Ranger, he was the Rangers' first commander and founder. He began not just a special force but a special tradition. The Brits had their commandos, and now we had our Rangers. They had their Orde Wingate and his Chindits, we had our Bill Darby and his Rangers, and it was a mighty good thing.
West Point, but when it came to recruiting a special force that would not only strike from behind enemy lines but strike terror in its heart and guts, Col. Darby wasn't interested in credentials, just courage and competence. And in seeing to it that the mission was accomplished and this damned war won. By whatever means necessary and maybe some that weren't, but that he knew would leave a lasting impression on the enemy. Those who survived.
They called Darby's men cutthroats. He took it as a compliment. And saw to it that the mission was accomplished. At whatever price. He himself paid it. He would be killed as the war was about to end. But that scarcely mattered. The mission would be accomplished. Cutthroats? Of course they were, literally. It was another of their skills, and it could come in mighty handy. "Onward we stagger," Colonel Darby once told his men, "and if the tanks come, may God help the tanks."
Captain, then Major, then Colonel and finally General Darby was the kind of commander who doesn't shout "Forward!" -- but rather "Follow Me!" And his men did. Unfailingly. An officer who went looking for him near the front one day asked a battle-begrimed Ranger where he could find the colonel. A slow grin crossed over the Ranger's face. "You'll never find him this far back."
Darby's Rangers, which is what they were called back then, 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? Because 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, and trained and trained and trained, they were first 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.
Darby's Rangers didn't have Hollywood good looks or the most polished manners. They had no need of either. What their commander went looking for was toughs. And he got them. From every walk and gutter of American life. One of his first Rangers was a bookkeeper in civilian life -- at a bordello. Another was a lion tamer. Now he would tame the enemy. Others had equally, uh, colorful backgrounds. They weren't clean-shaven or spit-shined. They were killers. And would need to be.
William O. Darby's spirit still lives. This year another embodiment of it was able to make Darby Day in Fort Smith. He's Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry, Medal of Honor recipient. The citation, like those citations awarded William O. Darby, U.S. Army, in his time, details his exploits in the formal language of such military memorabilia. But words alone can scarcely capture the blazing Hell of that day in Afghanistan when an American outfit seeking out the enemy was attacked. And when Sgt. Petry, in the course of throwing a hand grenade back at the attackers and saving his unit, lost a hand -- and was wounded through both thighs, too. Then, bleeding profusely, he continued to fight with rifle and grenades and his whole, undaunted spirit.
. . .
Bill Darby would have understood. So, surely, did the kids rising in the sergeant's honor at Darby Junior High the other day. Above and beyond the call of duty, it's called. Uncommon valor. But no words can do such heroism full justice. Welcome to Arkansas, sergeant. It was a pleasure to have you here in Rooster Cogburn country.
. . .
Wherever we get such Americans, may they never stop coming. Their country, and the cause of freedom in the world, will always have need of them.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)
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