Fort Smith remembers William O. Darby with Darby Challenge

Fort Smith remembers William O. Darby with Darby Challenge

There’s a story still told around the Fort Smith Museum of History about a boy who got his name in the newspaper for leading his friends on an adventure through the city’s tunnel system. The museum’s executive director, Caroline Speir, doesn’t remember all the details of the account, but she knows the lad’s name well. Back then, it was Bill Darby; later, he became internationally known as Brig. Gen. William O. Darby, who led his troops into battle in World War II.

Darby went off to West Point after high school — he graduated from Fort Smith Senior High in 1929 — and came back when he could to see his family, father Percy Darby, who owned a print shop; mother Nell; and his younger sister, Doris. But even in absentia, his Army career in World War II — including the organization and activation of the First U.S. Army Ranger Battalion — made him a hero in his hometown. And when the Darby statue was erected in 2016 in Cisterna Park, Speir got to talk to one of the men he commanded, along with the descendants of several others.

“He left such a legacy through his soldiers and not only their descendants but generations of descendants,” she says. “They want to tell you what a great leader he was, how he was very close to his troops, that he led by example and was somebody they trusted and followed.

“And it’s all because of the qualities he was raised with in Fort Smith — his work ethic and his persistence and a certain down-to-earth charisma.”

Darby is honored by the city of Fort Smith in its sister city or “twin city” relationships with Cisterna, Italy, where Darby’s Rangers suffered severe casualties in the battle for the city in January 1944, and Nago-Torbole, Italy, where he died on April 30, 1945, when a German shell exploded near his location.

This year, the museum is adding a new event to remember Darby. Called the Fort Smith General Darby Challenge, it’s a 13.1 mile half marathon, a 5K run or a 10K run starting at 7 a.m. April 28 at Cisterna Park in downtown Fort Smith. The Col. Darby 40 Mile Ranger Challenge takes place the same weekend in Nago-Torbole, Speir points out.

According to Speir, the Darby Challenge is a non-sanctioned but timed race that welcomes participants to ruck, run, or walk any of the distances. It is open to those on direct military orders, active and/or retired military, ROTC/JROTC and civilians alike. Special recognition will be awarded to those with the best times.

Funds raised from the event will be used by the museum toward upkeep and documentation of its Darby collection and by the new Darby House organization to restore and reopen Darby’s boyhood home.

Speir says she could go on and on about Darby.

“You know he’s considered the father of the modern U.S. Army Rangers,” she points out. But “I think another special thing about him was that what he did he did for the collective, the unit, that whole. He didn’t do it for personal glory, he brought along those he could, rallied and carried forth not a ‘look at me mentality’ but a ‘look at us, look what we can do.’”

Two days after Darby’s death, German forces in Italy surrendered, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. Darby received a promotion to brigadier general on May 15, 1945, the only soldier to receive such a promotion posthumously. He also received two Distinguished Service Crosses, a Silver Star for Gallantry in Action, a Purple Heart, and a Combat Infantry Badge, as well as the British Distinguished Service Order.

He was originally buried in a military cemetery outside of Cisterna, but on March, 11, 1949, his body was returned to Arkansas and reinterred at the Fort Smith National Cemetery, just a few blocks from his boyhood home.

Opening ceremonies for the Darby Challenge will begin with a few words from the Fort Smith Museum of History and Darby House and a presentation of colors by local ROTC organizations. Additionally, the Fort Smith Fire Department will hoist the American flag with their ladder truck, and Speir says runners will take off to the boom of the starting “gun” — a Howitzer supplied by the U.S. Army. Fire department bag pipes and a saber team along with the Fort Smith Police Department will lead participants through the arch and down “A” street, she adds.

A “silent mile” will honor 94 Arkansans who died or went missing in World War II and are buried or memorialized near Fort Smith’s Italian sister cities. Participants will also have the opportunity to pay their respects to Darby upon completing the Darby Challenge.



General Darby Challenge

WHAT — A 13.1 mile half marathon, 5K, or 10K

WHEN — 7 a.m.-noon April 28

WHERE — Starting from Cisterna Park in downtown Fort Smith

COST — $50-$70; a virtual event is also available

INFO —, or

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