Ted Van Arsdol put the D-Day invasion on the map.
On his map, anyway.
The Vancouver veteran was one of 150,000 troops who landed at Normandy 70 years ago. It was a defining event of the 20th century, and invasion plans were among the most critical military secrets of World War II.
Unlike other soldiers who sailed from England on the invasion fleet or lifted off with airborne units, Van Arsdol already knew where he was going.
“I had all the details. I knew everything about it,” he said.
That’s because he was a mapmaker, assigned to the headquarters staff of an Army anti-aircraft battalion.
“Each time we made a move, it had to be all mapped out,” Van Arsdol explained.
Each element of his 535th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion was assigned a particular spot to set up, providing the best pattern of protective firepower for their piece of the sky.
“Gun pits had to be dug,” Van Arsdol said.
A couple of months before the invasion, the technical sergeant joined several officers at a briefing. They were shown a map segment of a tiny piece of terrain so they could plan the anti-aircraft emplacements at their invasion objective.
“It was just a little piece,” the 93-year-old veteran said. “But I always liked to find out as much as I could, and we had some very detailed maps. I knew exactly where it was.”
It was Utah Beach.
One of five Allied landing areas, Utah Beach was at the right flank of a 50-mile invasion front along the French coast. Omaha Beach was the other U.S. landing area; to the left, British and Canadian troops landed at Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.
“Omaha was the one that took the casualties. We had some on ours,” he said, but Omaha “was a bad one. I was fortunate we didn’t go there.”
The American forces at Omaha Beach — the setting for the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan” — suffered more than 2,000 casualties. Utah Beach was taken at a cost of about 200 casualties.
After the war, Van Arsdol had a long career as an author and journalist, including several writing slots at The Columbian. He continues to write about local and regional history.
It’s fitting that Van Arsdol also was able to pen a first-person account of a day and a place where history was made. Van Arsdol has written a two-volume history of his unit: “Battalion from the Mojave: History of the 535th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion.”
Van Arsdol’s detailed writing supplements his own recollections as well as a Columbian interview he did 10 years ago, for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. The battalion history starts with the Clarkston native’s introduction to the Army in October 1942 at Fort Lewis.
But his accounts of the Normandy invasion — including the preparation as well as the aftermath — are particularly meaningful today.
He wrote about his final night in England, with three other GIs in a truck that had been loaded onto their landing craft, LCT 664. It was too rough a bed for sleeping, even if he’d been in the mood to sleep. He could feel a corporal’s bony knees against his legs: “They were reassuring, a reminder that there was lots of company in the darkness that last night before the assault on Europe,” he wrote.
The men of the 535th were still bobbing in the English Channel after the first assault wave had engaged German defenders on Omaha Beach. When it finally was their turn to land, LCT 664 followed a pilot boat through a lane that had been cleared of mines.
As their landing craft approached Utah Beach, the troops could see puffs of smoke ahead of them. Van Arsdol heard someone indulge in a little wishful thinking.
“He said the engineers were blowing up mines. He didn’t know what he was talking about. The Germans had the shoreline zeroed in, and they were trying to hit anything they could,” Van Arsdol said.
They drove their truck off the landing craft at about 5 p.m.
“There was a big concrete barrier along the water,” he said, a seawall just up from the beach. “We had to go across that, and the guys had to move further along the beach and start digging in.”
As they took stock of their situation, they heard the sounds that accompanied those puffs of smoke: three long terrifying whistles curving through the air, then three explosions.
It made quite an impression on Van Arsdol.
“Someone is trying to kill you. It’s a chilling thing when you realize that,” Van Arsdol said.
And kill they did.
“Corpses were lying around,” Van Arsdol said. Troops tried to dig in along that seawall but couldn’t make much progress in the sand, he said.
A medic from another unit walked over and asked if he could borrow a shovel to bury some arms and legs. “He said he would return the spade, but he didn’t.”
Dead man’s boots
In the chaos, some troops made it ashore without their gear. In his book, Van Arsdol describes a barefoot sergeant lying foot to foot with a dead soldier, comparing shoe sizes. They matched, and the sergeant unlaced the dead soldier’s boots and pulled them on.
The sergeant’s group also was short on firepower and picked up some German rifles, he wrote in “Battalion from the Mojave.” (The book title referred to 535th’s Mojave Desert training camp.)
Supplies continued to be a problem, and the guys in one battery realized that a nearby field hospital was a handy place to stock up. They found rifles, grenades and cartridge belts that had been brought in with wounded GIs.
The 535th remained there for several weeks, helping protect the beach.
“Germans would bomb us, but we had the anti-aircraft guns, so it was a pretty hot place for the Germans,” he said.
Van Arsdol wrote about watching a column of soldiers march past the battalion’s command post on June 11: “They trudged by, thousands after thousands, not a smile in the bunch, wearily, each lost in his own thoughts and weighted down by pack, rifle or bazooka or Browning automatic rifle.”
The 535th finally moved off Utah Beach on July 5. Van Arsdol’s road to Germany included more WWII milestones, including the Battle of the Bulge and the bridge at Remagen over the Rhine River.
Van Arsdol’s battalion history ends when he boarded a troop ship in La Havre, France. He writes of standing alone at the ship’s rail, thinking about the ones who wouldn’t be going home. … “the boys who had made a one-way trip across the ocean.”