A Hero Rides Home - Gen. William O. Darby Monument Installation
Photos of Gen. William O. Darby riding a Harley-Davidson MLA, such as this one on the cover of Newsweek magazine Jan. 4, 1943, influenced the decision to create a monument that depicted Darby on a military motorcycle.
A Hero is Riding Home April 30:
Gen. William O. Darby Monument Installation
Fort Smith has never forgotten its favored son, Bill Darby – a popular, accomplished young man who, along with millions of Americans of his time, left home to serve his country in World War II.
Like many families who waited anxiously at home, the Darby family received the dreaded notification that their son would not return.
Heartbreakingly near the end of combat in Europe, on April 30, 1945, he was killed, by an enemy shell, near Torbole, Italy. Two days later, Italy would surrender. May 8 would be Victory in Europe day, when hostilities ceased. Col. Darby was posthumously promoted to brigadier general.
On April 30, 2016, more than seven decades later, Gen. William O. Darby will become even more vivid in the minds of many when a bronze sculpture depicting him will be placed for all time in downtown Fort Smith.
The mission to have a statue of Darby in Fort Smith has been accomplished in only three years by present-day U.S. Army Rangers and community donors, including students of the Fort Smith school that was named in his honor, Darby Junior High.
The bronze figure, to be placed in Cisterna Plaza, will appear greater than life-size and even loftier on a specially-designed raised plinth. However, the people behind the General Darby Legacy Project intend, through a variety of ways, to emphasize “Bill’s” character and engaging personal qualities so that young people will relate to the young man as he was when he grew up in Fort Smith.
His military career achievements as an adult merit the honor of this new commemorative monument. After graduating from Fort Smith High School, Darby was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where he swiftly rose to leadership. He served as a cadet company commander. Upon his 1933 West Point graduation, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant assigned to a mounted artillery unit.
His destined association with the elite Army Rangers was forged as World War II became the inevitable next mission of the U.S. Armed Forces. Tasked with forming a new commando unit, he helped to establish its nature by studying British military commando units.
His own hand-picked men formed the first American Ranger unit, called “Darby’s Rangers,” and he led its training with its British counterparts.
Trained to spearhead forward attacks, Darby’s Rangers won their tough reputation in the invasion of North Africa through risky night advances. Rangers, now increased to three battalions, drove forward fiercely in the Allied invasion of Italy at Sicily and Anzio. Two battalions suffered severe casualties in the liberation of Cisterna, Italy, the action for which Fort Smith’s park and the statue’s home is named. During these valiant efforts, Darby reorganized Ranger units after heavy losses, to get them in fighting order.
When the brigadier general and assistant division commander of the Tenth Mountain Unit was wounded, Darby eagerly volunteered to go back into combat in his place, because he loved to be in action with his men.
He had already received the Distinguished Service Cross after the Arzew assault in North Africa, where he was recognized for leading the “fury of the Ranger attack” in close-quarter fighting by his “skillful employment of hand grenades,” according to his citation. He also received an oak leaf cluster for extraordinary heroism in Sicily: “Lt. Col. Darby, with the use of one 37mm gun, which he personally manned, managed not only to repulse an enemy attack, but succeeded with this weapon in destroying one tank, while two others were accounted for by well directed hand grenade fire.” His last commendation while living was the Silver Star for actions in North Africa.
But on April 30, 1945, with the Allies so near victory after brutal combat in Italy, a German shell landed among soldiers clustered around Darby, killing him and a sergeant and wounding others. Survivors, all cut from Darby’s mold, fought onward and helped force the surrender of Italy two days later.
For his courage and inspirational leadership, Darby’s commanders promoted him, after his death, to brigadier general.
Another elite unit on a mission: The Darby Legacy Project
A cadre of people can be credited for creating a bronze monument of Gen. Darby. In 2013, retired Army Ranger Joe Armstrong and his wife Liz Berry Armstrong first envisioned a monument. Liz spoke for her husband, who is currently working as a civilian in the Middle East, when she recalled their moment of inspiration.
“We sat up in the middle of our bed with a yellow legal pad writing down our ideas,” she remembered. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it, but we could see the statue in our minds and knew right where we wanted it to be.” They launched the campaign on the anniversary of Darby’s birthday. They immediately got critical support from leaders of the Bass Reeves statue project, without which they could not have succeeded, Liz said in gratitude.
Read more at darbylegacyproject.com
The Armstrongs drafted Dr. Darren McKinney, principal of Darby Junior High School, to chair the effort with their support. The general’s namesake junior high already had a partnership with the Armstrongs, who had raised funds for an electronic marquee at the Grand Avenue and North 14th Street campus. The school has strong ties to active and retired Rangers to emphasize to students the history behind the school’s name and Rangers athletic mascot.
“We teach the students that Darby came from the same neighborhood served by our school,” McKinney. “Our motto is the U.S. Army Rangers’ motto: Rangers Lead the Way! We tell them they don’t have to follow; they can make themselves a great person. Darby walked these halls and then stepped into the world and did something extraordinary. They can, too.”
The Armstrongs reached out to retired and active Rangers to raise funds. They have also worked to establish Fort Smith as an “All-Ranger” reunion destination for gatherings of any retired or active Ranger organization. Rangers already visit Fort Smith frequently in respect for their founder.
Why the hero rides a Harley
When the Armstrongs had the idea of a Darby monument, they saw him astride a motorcyle. Joe Armstrong rides, as do many Rangers. A few historical photos show Darby on a 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA, a model produced for military use. Most officers would have used a jeep; Darby was known to prefer a bike when available. Not only did the project have to find a sculptor; the artist had to create a man and a motorcycle.
Although the bike was a technical challenge, the sculptor they chose says he was far more concerned with conveying Darby’s humanity.
“I didn’t want the cool Harley to overtake him,” said Kevin Kresse of Little Rock, an award-winning artist and sculptor who has been commissioned to create works of many distinguished figures.
He referred to books, oral histories, photographs, an unpublished manuscript written by the general’s nephew and a few sound clips in his quest to find the essence of the man as he was in life.
“A posthumous piece is hardest,” he explained. “You run into the danger of overworking and removing the ‘life’ of the figure.”
‘“There were a couple of little things” which evoked a spark of the genuine person, Kresse said. “One was a moment Darby told how he felt when he thought the ship he was aboard was about to be torpedoed.”
Learning that Darby played the clarinet intrigued Kresse, who pondered the contrast of being both a musician and a soldier. Look closely after the statue is installed to notice that Kresse gave Darby “a military hand and a musician’s hand.” Clarinet players will understand best, he said.
Learn more at kevinkresse.com where a gallery of his work can be seen.
Working with the Crucible Foundry of Norman, Okla. was a good creative relationship, Kresse said. It’s the same foundry which helped create Harold T. Holden’s bronze of Bass Reeves at the west end of Fort Smith’s Garrison Avenue. His original, clay sculpture was scaled up by the foundry to a clay-over-foam model. Kresse then put his hands in the clay again and refined many details. A mold was made from the model.
Molten bronze is poured into the molds by the foundry artisans, who assemble the finished sculpture from several cast segments. The hardened bronze will faithfully retain the marks made by Kresse’s fingers and tools.
“The more into it I got, the more I realized my responsibility,” he said of creating Darby’s likeness. “I really want to deliver, so much that if his mama was around, she would see the piece and say ‘there he is.’”
April 30 Monument Dedication Program
The program begins at 10 a.m. at Cisterna Plaza, Garrison Avenue and North 10th Street. The Steel Horse Motorcyle Rally is also taking place, so side street parking is recommended.
Maj. Gen. William D. Wofford, the Adjutant General of Arkansas National Guard. Wofford, an Arkansas Tech University graduate, has commanded the Arkansas National Guard since 2007.
Darby Watkins is an invited speaker who will represent his late mother, Doris Nell, sister of Gen. Darby, and his siblings Dr. Sylvia Nell Ryan and Presson Watkins. The nephew of General William O. Darby will share family experiences, personal insights, and memories of "Billy" Darby.
Dr. Darren McKinney is chairman of the General Darby Legacy Project and principal of Darby Junior High School. The Darby Junior High Band will perform. Selected Darby students will recite the Ranger Creed, which includes the school’s motto, “Rangers Lead the Way.”
Related Exhibits and Programs
The Fort Smith Museum of History, 320 Rogers Avenue, has updated the Darby Room, which exhibits uniforms, personal artifacts, photographs and information about William O. Darby. An audio cell phone tour narrated by Darby and Presson Watkins explains the exhibits. A biographical video presentation is repeated all day in the museum’s Griffin Theater, along with related World War II oral history. fortsmithmuseum.org
Also at the museum at noon, Motorcyle Memories, a program surveying Fort Smith’s motorcycle history. fortsmithmuseum.org
The Darby House, 311 General Darby Street, the general’s boyhood home, will be open for tours and holds Ranger memorabilia of the World War II and artifacts related to William O. Darby.
This article appears in the April 2016 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.
Photos of the Darby sculpture in process by Scott Mellgren, at The Crucible Foundry in Norman, Okla.