This Army Ranger Legend Will Live Forever In His Hometown

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This 1942 file photo shows Col. William O. Darby, founder of the American Rangers, in Britain.
AP photo

This past weekend marked the 71st anniversary of the death of Col. William O. Darby, the original commander of the U.S. Army Rangers.


On Saturday, April 30, Darby’s life was commemorated in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the town where he was born.

The beloved hometown hero was honored with an unveiling of a memorial bronze statue of Darby on a 1942 Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The sculpture was based on a photograph taken by fellow Ranger Phil Stern just after the invasion of North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942. The photograph was later published on the January 1943 cover of Newsweek magazine.

Accompanied by a police escort and a motorcycle brigade of rangers, the Darby statue entered town with grand fanfare. In the crowd was veteran Kenneth Vaught who was overcome with emotion as he recalled escorting Darby’s casket to Fort Smith cemetery 65 years ago from Cisterna.

“[He was] my idol," Vaught told Channel 5 KFSM-TV in Fort Smith. "I was in the military too, but nothing equal to him.”

Watch video of Darby statue being escorted in Fort Smith.

The statue was erected in Cisterna Park on the eastern edge of town. Darby’s arm points in the direction of the European theater. A statue of the first African American U.S. deputy marshal, Bass Reeves, atop a horse defends the western side of town.

Several hundred people were in attendance, including several dozen Rangers, Darby’s nephews Darby and Presson Watkins and niece Sylvia, and one of the few remaining original Darby’s Rangers, 95-year-old Staff Sgt. Wilbur “Punch” Gallop. Students from Darby Junior High recited the Ranger creed, which is part of their school handbook.

“He tells them Darby’s Rangers don’t follow anyone, they lead the way,” organizer Liz Armstrong told Task & Purpose of Principal Darren McKinney. “He leads that school with integrity. He reminds the students that greatness has walked those halls and they can lead the way too.”

Initiated three years ago, The Darby Legacy Project was spearheaded by Armstrong and her husband Joe, a retired U.S. Army Ranger.

The 15-foot tall, 1,300-pound bronze monument was created by sculptor Kevin Kress of Little Rock, Arkansas. Funds for the $165,000 monument were covered by various fundraising efforts including a generous donation from the Steel Horse Rally, a charity motorcycle rally honoring all those who serve. Etched on a plaque beneath the new statue is a quote from Darby: “Onward we stagger and if the tanks come, may God help the tanks."

Darby was born in Fort Smith on Feb. 8, 1911. A 1933 graduate of West Point, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 1st Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery of the 1st Cavalry, at Fort Bliss, Texas. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Darby deployed to Northern Ireland in January 1942 where he was tasked with organizing and training a new elite unit based on the British commandos. Some of the same rigorous training continues to exist in the Darby Phase of Ranger school at Fort Benning.

Assigned to Italy as assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain division, Darby was one of two officers killed by a burst of German 88mm shells. He was just 34 years old.

“He never forgot his roots in Fort Smith,” said McKinney. “This statue allows us to honor our native son.”

Photo: U.S. Army/Elizabeth Fraser/Arlington National Cemetery

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Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra

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On April 11, 1966, Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger (played by Jeremy Irvine) responded to a call to evacuate casualties belonging to a company with the Army's 1st Infantry Division near Cam My during a deadly ambush, the result of a search and destroy mission dubbed Operation Abilene.

In the ensuing battle, the unit suffered more than 80 percent casualties as their perimeter was breached. Despite the dangers on the ground, Pitsenbarger refused to leave the soldiers trapped in the jungle and waved off the medevac chopper, choosing to fight, and ultimately die, alongside men he'd never met before that day.

Decades later, those men fought to see Pitsenbarger's Air Force Cross upgraded to the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 8, 2000, they won, when Pitsenbarger was posthumously awarded the nation's highest decoration for valor.

The Last Full Measure painstakingly chronicles that long desperate struggle, and the details of the battle are told in flashbacks by the soldiers who survived the ambush, played by a star-studded cast that includes Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, and William Hurt.

After Operation Abilene, some of the men involved moved on with their lives, or tried to, and the film touches on the many ways they struggled with their grief, trauma, and in the case of some, feelings of guilt. For the characters in The Last Full Measure, seeing Pitsenbarger awarded the Medal of Honor might be the one decent thing they pull out of that war, remarks Jackson's character, Lt. Billy Takoda, one of the soldier's whose life Pitsenbarger saved.

There are a lot of threads to follow in The Last Full Measure, individual strands of a larger story that feel misplaced, redacted, or cut short — at times, violently. But this is not a criticism, quite the opposite in fact. This tangled web is part of the larger narrative at play as Scott Huffman, a fictitious modern-day Pentagon bureaucrat played by Sebastian Stan, tries to piece together what actually happened that fateful day so many years ago.

At the start, Huffman — the person who ultimately becomes Pitsenbarger's champion in Washington — wants nothing to do with the airman's story, the medal, or the Vietnam veterans who want to see his sacrifice recognized. For Huffman, it's a burdensome assignment, just one more box to check before he can move on to brighter and better career prospects.

The skepticism of Pentagon bureaucracy and Washington political operators is on full display throughout the movie. When Takoda first meets Huffman, the Army vet grills the overdressed and out-of-his-depth government flack about his intentions, calls him an FNG (fucking new guy) and tosses Huffman's recorder into the nearby river where he's fishing with his grandkids.

Sebastian Stan stars as Scott Huffman alongside Samuel Jackson as Billy Takoda in "The Last Full Measure."(IMDB)

As Huffman spends more time with the grunts who fought alongside Pitsenbarger, and the Air Force PJs who flew with him that day, he, and the audience, come to see their campaign, and their frustration over the lack of progress, in a different light.

In one of the movie's later moments, The Last Full Measure offers an explanation for why Pitsenbarger's award languished for so long. The theory? Pitsenbarger's Medal of Honor citation was downgraded to a service cross, not because his actions didn't meet the standard associated with the nation's highest award for valor, but because his rank didn't.

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The cynicism in The Last Full Measure is overt, but to be entirely honest, it feels warranted. While watching the film, I couldn't help but think back to recent stories of battlefield bravery, like that of Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who ran into a burning Bradley three times in Iraq to pull out his wounded men — a feat of heroism that cost him his life, and inspired an ongoing campaign to see Cashe awarded the Medal of Honor.

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