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Taking their name from Rogers Rangers, a British-American unit organized in 1757, the U.S. Rangers, under William Orlando Darby, were one of America’s elite fighting units in World War II. With their superb training and unbreakable spirit, the volunteers who made up the illustrious Rangers were always in the thick of battle. Yet, in Italy, it was their penchant for being in the toughest place that led to their destruction.

The key town of Cisterna, 15 miles northeast of Anzio, was heavily defended by some of the most experienced German troops in Italy. So fierce was the resistance that the 3rd Infantry Division had been unable to get near Cisterna. Major General Lucian Truscott, the 3rd’s commanding officer, knew the Rangers’ capabilities and felt certain Darby’s men could infiltrate the town. The 1st, 3rd, and 4th Ranger battalions were given the job.

On the cold, moonless night of January 29, 1944, the battalions moved out of their foxholes into hell. Having gone barely a half mile, the 4th Battalion was suddenly raked with machine-gun fire and bursts of deadly mortar rounds. Casualties mounted and the Rangers were pinned down; they could neither advance nor retreat. At dawn, American tanks tried to come to their aid, but they were soon stopped by mines.

Up ahead, the 1st and 3rd battalions neared the town and dashed across an open field, killing the enemy in their path. They quickly encountered German Mark IV panzers, which blasted a bloody swath through their ranks. Locked into a pocket some 300 yards square, the Rangers were subjected to intense mortar and automatic-weapons fire while the panzers rumbled through the Rangers’ position, crushing men into the mud and blasting others point-blank with their main guns. Fighting back desperately, Rangers knocked out tanks with sticky grenades or dropped grenades down hatches. Out of ammunition, the Rangers fought bravely with knives, bayonets, rifle butts, entrenching tools and bare hands. But it was no use. Darby’s brave, outnumbered men died tragically. Darby himself was back at headquarters, one of the few times he was not with the leading elements.

Before the final German onslaught, a Ranger radioed headquarters with the news that all was lost. Darby pleaded by radio for his men to infiltrate back to friendly lines. Informed that escape was impossible, Darby put his head on his arm and cried. “He always put the safety of his men first,” said his driver, “and he couldn’t stand the thought of what was happening to them.”

After hours of desperate fighting, only six Rangers made it out; the other 761 members of the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions were either dead or captured.

The Rangers in Italy were disbanded. His unit gone, Darby was assigned to command a regiment of the 45th Division still fighting at Anzio. He would later be killed just two days before the end of the war, while serving as assistant division commander of the 10th Mountain Division.