NORTHERN IRELAND has a unique place in American military history, the only part of the world where an American regiment has been formed on non-American soil.
The US Rangers was created in Carrickfergus in June 1942, just months after tens of thousands of General Infantry (GI) troops had arrived in Ulster as part of the Allied war effort.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 resulted in the US entering the war, and in January 1942 the first troopship arrived in Belfast.
On board was a young army captain named William Darby. Born at Fort Smith, Arkansas, Darby had been appointed to serve as aide-de-camp to Major General Russell P. Harte, commander of the 34th infantry.
The young army captain, like many thousands of other GIs, could trace his ancestry to Northern Ireland and also like many others was far too busy to look further into his family history.
He was disappointed at his posting as aide to Hartle, and voiced his feelings that he would rather have been assigned command of a combat unit than a staff post.
This situation would dramatically change when the opportunity arose to head up a new unit shortly after arriving in Ulster.
Initially, however, Darby’s personality was utilised as an ambassador in the community to which the Americans had arrived
Paul Jeffers, author of “Onward we charge, The heroic story of Darby’s Rangers in World War II” (2007) notes that “Because his temperament was deemed more congenial than Hartle’s gruff and often brusque bearing, he was given responsibility for engaging socially with the Irish, who suddenly found not only their community inundated with thousands of American soldiers but their quiet countryside, narrow lanes and scenic byways resounding to the rumbling and roar of military vehicles.”
Wartime photograph of US soldiers in Ulster
Within a few months around 40,000 US troops had arrived, and a review of the forces led to a decision that commando training would be beneficial. Colonel Lucian K. Truscutt, tasked with considering the value of such training, suggested on May 26, 1942, a that a force of 400-500 men be raised from US troops in Ulster.
The Americans did not wish to use the term commando for their new unit out of deference to the British army.
And after consideration of what they should name the new force, the term Rangers was selected. It is not clear what exact deliberation took place, but the use of Rangers suggests a knowledge of the Scotch-Irish history on the American frontiers in colonial times.
An Ulsterman named Robert Rodgers, from Tyrone, had formed a militia which protected settlements against Indian attacks and the French. It was renowned for its ability to move swiftly and was known as Rodgers Rangers.
Hartle appears to have selected the name and it is likely that recent prominence in the public consciousness through Northwest Passage in 1937, written by novelist Kenneth Roberts, and the 1940 film of the same name starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Young had brought the legacy of the original Rangers to his attention.
Hartle had been given responsibility for forming the unit and selecting its commander, and in the course of discussion Darby was quick to volunteer.
Over a two-week period, 575 men were chosen from 2000 who had volunteered to serve.
The men were aged between 17 and 35 years and included Corporal James Haines of Kentucky, who had been a lion tamer in the Frank Buck Circus, and Samson P. Oneskunk, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota. Many of the men were from the Mid-West of America.
The Rangers volunteers boarded a convoy of trucks and headed off to training camp in Carrick, where the training was strenuous. In Carrick the early training highlighted that this was to be an elite unit; marching with their full pack and equipment, the Rangers covered five miles in an hour.
On June 19, 1942, the five companies of the Rangers were reviewed on a soccer field, the military band of the Signal Corps playing as Darby and British General Robert Laycock being present. Laycock was to take charge of the Rangers training in Scotland.
The Rangers sailed from Larne to Scotland, then were to travel by train to the Highlands. Arriving at Fort William, they were met by a Cameron Highlander band and made their way to Achnacarry Castle. Situated 18 miles from Ben Nevis, the castle had been loaned to the government for the duration of the war, and the area was ideal for training and honing the speed marches which had been started in Carrickfergus.
The training was more intensive and everyone was treated equally, as Darby expected his officers to be at the front of the line in any training.
There was one fatality in the Highlands, when a Ranger drowned during training. The men were also expected to operate under live fire, their ‘opponents’ deliberately firing over their heads.
It was in the Highlands that the Rangers recorded an impressive 87 minutes to cover 10 miles on one of their speed marches, and this swiftness was later be demonstrated in North Africa during their first operation, the men marching overnight and digging in prior to a surprise attack on Italian positions.
A second phase of training would take place in the highlands and islands of Argyll, which was ideal for mock beach landings and which included a three day exercise involving a raid on Tobermory and Mull.
The landscape changed for the troops when they were moved to Dundee for more training and were taken into the homes of local people, often arriving for their training each morning with their ‘piece’ or lunch provided for them.
The Rangers were then attached to the 1st Infantry Division – known as the ‘Big Red One’ – in Glasgow and were to undergo landing training in the Firth of Forth.
At Gourock, they embarked on three ferries which had been converted as landing ships for the Rangers.
Appropriately, these highlighted the two parts of the UK with which they were now intimately associated; the vessels were the Ulster Monarch, Royal Ulsterman and Royal Scotsman.
They were bound as part of a massive convoy for the Mediterranean and a major assault on North Africa. Ships from the US, Northern Ireland and England were involved in this great convoy, which arrived off Gibraltar on November 5, 1942.
The Rangers objective was Arzew in Algers. The landing at Arzew was highly successful, with few losses or injuries, although there had been a mishap when one of the landing craft tipped a platoon into the sea as they were lowered down from the ship; thankfully, no one had been injured, but equipment was lost and war photographer Phil Stern was distraught about the loss of film.
Darby was for a time military mayor of Arzew, working with the civilian mayor of the town. Charactistically he became bored, as did his men. Further action lay ahead in Tunisia and elsewhere, however, while new Rangers battalions were being raised, the 2nd battalion in Tennessee was preparing to enter the European Theatre of War.
For the 1st and 3rd battalions with their colonel Robert Darby, Operation Torch would take them from North Africa to Sicily and then to the Italian mainland.
Fighting proved intense on the mainland and the Rangers suffered disastrous losses at Cisterna with high casualty rates.
The outcome of the overall war was however becoming clearer and would continue to be so after the Normandy Landings, in which other Rangers battalions were involved.
Darby was sent back to the United States for a time but then returned to Italy, which was to be where he would meet his death after a stray German shell exploded nearby. Darby and other officers had been monitoring the German flight from the area, when the shell was fired back into the town.
Fatally wounded, his death brought to an end an extraordinary personal chapter, and a chapter in the story of the elite regiment.
At home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Darby is remembered through a museum which used to be his family home, a local school named in his honour and a special day in his honour in Arkansas generally.
When new Rangers train they learn about Carrickfergus as the birthplace of the US Ranger and Colonel William Darby, ‘El Darbo’, a man whose promotion from captain to colonel had been rapid and dramatic within a short space of time.
The US Rangers museum in Carrickfergus, which is located at the Andrew Jackson Centre, is a reminder of the outstanding personal story of William Darby and the outstanding military achievements of his beloved Rangers. And also of the strategic importance of Ulster during the Second World War.
Colonel William Darby, leader of the Rangers