Ag alum chronicles father’s WWII journey in fascinating new book
by JAMIE CREAMER
Funny how you can live with someone your whole life and never really know the person.
For Auburn College of Agriculture alum Mike Darnell (’79, agricultural business and economics), it was his dad, B.B. Sure, Mike had grown up knowing that his father—a 1942 Auburn agriculture alumnus and a highly respected Lee County cattle farmer and agribusinessman—was a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Italy in World War II.
But B.B. never talked about his time in the service, and Mike never bothered to ask.
It wasn’t until the elder Darnell was in his 80s, frail and suffering from dementia, that the war stories came, bits and pieces of painful, long-held-close memories of bloody battles, brutal attacks and counterattacks, and so much carnage.
“There were times when his mind was really clear, and he’d start talking about things that happened during the war, things that nobody in the family had ever heard about,” says Mike, a Glasgow, Kentucky, industrial machining business owner and the youngest of B.B. and wife Mildred’s four children. “Things would come out about how bad it was, and you could tell it bothered him, and apparently had bothered him all these years.”
B.B. Darnell passed away in 2011 at the age of 89, but the glimpses he had given his son into his wartime experiences had so fascinated Mike that he made it his mission to find out more.
In April 2015, after more than three years of research that included poring through 4-inch-thick military files, immersing himself in WWII history, conducting interviews, accessing actual weekly and daily field operations reports from his father’s unit and traveling to Italy to retrace his father’s route, Mike Darnell published “A Hero’s Walk: The World War II Journey of Lt. B.B. Darnell.”
It is a 209-page historically based “journal’ that recounts the young WWII soldier’s trek across North Africa and through Italy as a member of the 328th Field Artillery Battalion, 85th Infantry Division.
From a Christmas Eve, 1943, departure from U.S. soil aboard the USS Gen. Alexander E. Anderson to a Nov. 3, 1945, return on the USS Monticello, journal entries chronicle the hardships and sacrifices that Darnell and the young men fighting alongside him endured in service to their country.
“Originally, it was going to be his letters to and from home, but I couldn’t find many of those,” Mike Darnell says. “I decided on a journal approach, constructing it as he would have written it.
“After my brother read the book, he said, ‘It sounds just like Daddy.’ That was the biggest compliment I could ever receive. That’s what I wanted to do.”
B.B. Darnell, who had graduated from Alabama Polytechnic Institute in ’42 not only with an agriculture degree but also with a commission as second lieutenant in the Army, had one of the most perilous assignments a soldier could have. As forward observer, he spent days on end on the front lines of battle, serving as the eyes and ears for his battalion and directing artillery fire. The average life expectancy for forward observers in WWII was two weeks.
But the lieutenant beat the odds and returned to his home in Notasulga a decorated warrior, having been awarded the Bronze Star for heroism, both a Silver Star and an Oak Leaf Cluster for gallantry in action and a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle. But, in true B.B. Darnell form, he never talked about them.
Mike Darnell can’t help but wonder how his father would react to the book.
“I hope he’d like it,” he says. “But he was a very modest, humble man, so I know he’d mainly be embarrassed.”
“A Hero’s Walk” is available on Amazon.com. Portions of the proceeds benefit USA Cares, a nonprofit organization providing emergency financial assistance to military families.
“Daddy would be proud and honored to know that his story was helping people who had served their country and are in need,” the author says.