words: Tom Wing, Historian and Author
images: courtesy Fort Smith Museum of History
Cisterna, Italy, and Fort Smith, Arkansas, are sister cities, a designation of love and respect that started during World War II. As a part of that long-fought war, Army Rangers led by Fort Smith’s own William O. Darby liberated the Italian City in a battle that made history.
Let’s take a look at the Italian city’s history. A Roman historian first mentioned the numerous patrician villas located near the site of present-day Cisterna, Italy. Cisterna means reservoir, water being a vital commodity on the Appian Way (road to Rome). A small village named Tres Tabernae (Three Taverns), near the city, is named in Acts 28:15, by the Apostle Paul as he journeys to prison in Rome.
Modern-day Cisterna benefitted for a time under the programs of Benito Mussolini, who ordered much of the surrounding marshland drained, which resulted in productive farm acreage. The German military would undo most of this during World War II in an effort to frustrate American and British troops in the area. Today, Europe and other parts of the world enjoy the region of Cisterna’s bounty of kiwi fruit.
Now that we understand the city’s history, let’s see where Fort Smith’s connection begins. World War II brought action to the old crossroads and farming community with the Allied invasion at Anzio in January 1944. British and American forces successfully landed, but soon found themselves encircled by German troops who, according to intelligence reports, would be undermanned, unmotivated, and inaccessible to the area of operation. Intelligence reports were wrong in every case.
On January 29, elements of Fort Smith’s own Colonel William O. Darby’s Ranger Battalions were tasked with infiltrating the “assumed” lightly-defended German lines and seizing the crossroads at Cisterna. According to the plan, the Rangers would be supported by the US 7th Infantry, one of the oldest active regiments in the Army that once garrisoned the first Fort Smith. The US 7th Infantry was nicknamed “Cotton Balers” for their part in the Battle of New Orleans under Andrew Jackson. Also aiding the Rangers was the US 15th Regiment, who were called “Old China Hands,” owing to their service during the Boxer Rebellion in China.
At dawn on January 30, the full details of the disaster were clear. Seven hundred sixty-seven Rangers had gone to battle the day before; 761 died or were captured. The fight for Cisterna did not end until May 1944. Darby was sent home for a stint at the Pentagon, then reassigned to the field in Italy. He died in October 1944, the victim of a German artillery attack, near Verona in Northern Italy.
The people of Fort Smith have always remembered their soldier/son. His house is a museum, a school is named for him, and more recently a statue was erected on Garrison Avenue, larger than life, completely fitting and proper for the accomplishments and legacy of William Orlando Darby.
In 1984, Cisterna’s city leadership, along with one of Darby’s own men, suggested the cities be twinned officially, to further recognize and honor the soldiers who fought and died there. Festivals, visits to both cities by representatives and dignitaries, commemorations and other activities remembered a time of war but focused on the promise of peace. In a box, stored in the Fort Smith Museum of History are hundreds of postcards and personal letters, many with original artwork, written and drawn by schoolchildren from Cisterna. All the correspondence is addressed to the mayor of Fort Smith at that time, Bill Vines. During a recent interview, Vines remembered with fondness his trip to Italy to represent the City of Fort Smith. “They were so kind, the young and old, but especially those who had survived the war. They were extremely grateful, and they ALL loved Darby.” Vines told of addressing the people of Cisterna on the town square, and his failed attempt to speak to them in Italian, which solicited laughter and broke the ice of a somewhat solemn moment. Later, when doves were released to symbolize peace, one of the doves landed on Vines’ head. “They roared even louder,” he said.
The former mayor spoke of the gifts, the parties, dinners and receptions, including the Symphony of Rome and the elite Alpini (Alpine Mountain) soldiers of the Italian Army who performed in honor of the linking of Fort Smith to Cisterna. However, what remains clearest in his mind, are the voices of the Italian children, crowds of them at every turn chanting his name, Billy. When they said it, it sounded more like “Beelee, Beelee!”
While Fort Smith has some long-standing Italian families, and a rich Italian heritage, it was the sacrifices of Darby and his men that caused the cities to be permanently joined. In helping to end the war and stop the attempted domination by cruel dictators, Darby and his men helped bring a degree of peace still enjoyed today. The people of Cisterna have never forgotten.