Before he was the “Chronicler of Cool,” photographer Phil Stern fought with the U.S. Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion.

Phil Stern is best known for his iconic portraits of such Hollywood legends as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne. But for two years during World War II Stern put his skills as a photographer to work while training and fighting with the U.S. Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion—the elite unit that would earn fame as “Darby’s Rangers.” Nicknamed “Snapdragon” by his fellow Rangers, Stern chronicled some of the most important engagements of the North African and Italian campaigns. Stern died at age 95 in 2014, but award-winning journalist Liesl Bradner, a friend who became the driving force behind his last exhibition, has melded Stern’s photographs with honest and intimate observations from his wartime diary in Snapdragon: The World War II Exploits of Darby’s Ranger and Combat Photographer Phil Stern (Osprey Publishing, 2018), from which these pages are adapted.

  • A group of fresh-faced American Rangers wearing British M1917 helmets from World War I playfully charge through the muddy bivouac area of their training camp at Corker Hill, Scotland, in 1942.
  • Captain William Orlando Darby, chosen at age 31 to command the U.S. Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion, would go on to lead his men in campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
  • Two Ranger corporals with open sight rifles, firing from a strategic point above the Algerian port town of Arzew, engage enemy snipers barricaded in warehouses along the waterfront.
  • Two Rangers in D Company shell an artillery battery near a French fort on the ridgeline above Arzew with an 81mm mortar, leading the enemy forces there to surrender almost immediately.
  • Three Rangers stand atop an Italian gun that, hidden behind a spur just east of Telepte Airfield in Tunisia, had rained havoc on the 1st Battalion positions at Dernaia Pass; before fleeing, the Italians blew up the gun’s muzzle.
  • Fritzi the dachshund had been the mascot of a unit in Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps; the Rangers adopted the little dog.
  • A pants-less Ranger wields a bat as the unit relaxes in late 1942 during the occupation of Arzew.
  • Rangers make their way across a rugged hillside in Arzew in January 1943; the enemy considered attacks from such difficult directions improbable.
  • Ranger gunners in a foxhole man ack-ack guns while scanning the skies for enemy planes after the landings in North Africa.
  • Rangers gather on the deck of HMS Princess Emma to hear Darby brief them on their top-secret mission: a night attack on the Tunisian island of La Galite.


This article appears in the Winter 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Darby’s Shooters

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