POINTE DU HOC, France — Even filled with grass and wildflowers, the craters are still so deep and wide that you can still feel the explosions of the bombs that sculpted them 79 years ago.
At the pox-chopped entrance of an old German bunker, you can almost feel the rattle of machine guns.
Charles de Vallavieille, mayor of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont, observing the remnants of the war in Utah Beach. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
Looking out over the 30-meter cliff overlooking the ocean, you can clearly see how exposed the young Americans were when they climbed the ropes that morning of June 6, 1944.
Of all the D-Day locations, none conveys the horror and heroism of that pivotal moment in World War II like Pointe du Hoc.
But it's rapidly disappearing.
The Nazi defense and viewpoint between two landing beaches in Normandy, which the American Rangers conquered, suffered three other landslides this spring.
Inspections revealed that the waves had chewed up a cavity more than two and a half meters deep at its base.
"There's no question we're going to lose more cliffs," said Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the U.S. Battle Monuments Commission, which receives about 900,000 visitors a year.
"We know we're not going to fight Mother Nature. What's scary now is the speed at which it's happening."
U.S. troops landing at Utah Beach in 1944. Photo .via Musée du Débarquement de Utah Beach
Climate change and erosion are hitting French coastlines, raising questions about property rights, security and sustainable development.
But along the northern strip of beaches and cliffs of Normandy, where 150,000 Allied troops landed to face machine guns and fascism, history, memory and even identity are also in danger.
World War II memorial in Ste.-Marie-du-Mont. Built on the site where American troops landed, it is now threatened by coastal erosion. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
When the sites disappear, how will France explain to itself, and to the rest of the world, the impact of that moment? Or, at what cost should they be saved?
"If I don't have the site, I lose the history of what happened here," Desjardins said, looking out at the frowning waves lapping the cliffs.
"It doesn't matter if you stay at home on the couch reading a book."
Utah Beach after D-Day. Photo via Musée du Débarquement de Utah Beach
Even for a country with an official "memorial adviser" to the president, the 80-kilometer stretch that witnessed the arrival of the Allies takes the commemoration to an exultant level.
A defensive fighting position, called Tobruk, which has broken off from the cliffs at Grandcamp-Maisy, around the coast of Ste.-Marie-du-Mont. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
The Normandy tourist office has more than 90 officialD-Day venues, including 44 museums, which attract more than 5 million visitors a year.
The edges of the county roads are decorated with tributary statues and banners showing the faces of Allied soldiers who died in the war.
Village squares are named "June 6," main roads labeled "Libération," and tourist shops are filled with D-Day magnets and old army paraphernalia.
The town of Arromanches-les-Bains. The Normandy tourist office has more than 90 official D-Day venues, including 44 museums, which attract more than five million visitors a year. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
All of that is threatened:
Two-thirds of these coastlines are already eroding, according to the Normandy report on climate change, and experts predict the worst is yet to come with rising sea levels, rising storms and rising tides heralded by climate change.
"The coast will go in. We are sure of that," says Stéphane Costa, professor of geography at the University of Caen and one of the leading local experts on climate change.
The French Government has already declared itself defeated.
After centuries of protecting itself against the onslaught of the ocean with stone protections, it now promotes the principle of "living with the sea, not against it".
Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the American Battle Monuments Commission, in Pointe du Hoc, Normandy. "There is no doubt that we are going to lose more of our cliff," he said. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
Communities on the edges of the country, including several along D-Day beaches, are developing adaptation plans, which will include the possibility of moving.
For many, the idea of leaving a place with so much history is unacceptable.
"This is a symbolic place; it's mythical," said Charles de Vallavieille, standing on the shore of the beach of La Madeleine, which from June 6, 1944, was renamed "Utah".
"Everyone has to come here once in their life to understand what happened here," said de Vallavieille, the town's mayor.
Utah Beach, the westernmost of the five D-Day beaches, was quickly conquered by American soldiers, who pushed inland to the central square of Ste-Marie-du-Mont, where American paratroopers, dropped by plane overnight, were already fighting German soldiers.
"An American paratrooper hid in the hole behind this bomb," reads a sign above two water taps.
"He was holding his rifle in the crook of his elbow, like a hunter," he continues, shooting at the German soldiers and killing a dozen of them.
Across the street, a large black-and-white photo of American soldiers praying during Mass hangs next to the entrance to the town's eleventh-century church.
Like many residents, de Vallavieille's personal history is intimately linked to D-Day.
That morning, American paratroopers shot his father, Michel, five times in the back.
He was transferred to an army tent for a life-saving operation and to England for other operations.
Michel de Vallavieille later became mayor and opened one of the region's first D-Day museums in a former German bunker in Utah Beach.
The remains of an artificial harbour used in the D-Day landing on the sands of Arromanches-les-Bains. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
The museum has been expanded many times along the dune to accommodate some 1,300 objects, including an original B-26 bomber.
But it is increasingly in the crosshairs of climate change.
In recent years, Vallavieille has obtained permission to fill the beach that precedes the museum with sand.
But the state permit expires in 2026 and can only be renewed if the museum has developed a long-term plan to relocate, a proposal de Vallavieille passionately rejects.
"For me, it's absolutely necessary to protect it," he says, noting that Dutch cities like Rotterdam dominate dike construction.
"The museum has to be here. It's the importance of this place."
The directors of the Museum of the Landing of Arromanches-les-Bains thought the same.
They have just reopened their doors after a huge renovation of the building that has cost 11 million euros (about 11.8 million dollars).
According to director Frédéric Sommier, the museum's internal risk assessment showed that the site was unlikely to flood or erode, even taking climate change into account.
If government policy bends, the price could prove insurmountable.
The Juno Beach Centre has been working to build a carbon sink: planting trees in a nearby forest, where Canadian troops collected wood in the final year of the war. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
In 2010, U.S. engineers spent $6 millionto secure the observation bunker at the tip of Pointe du Hoc, implanting concrete blocks at the base of the cliff and anchoring them in the bedrock of the deep.
Sensors show that the construction worked:
The observation bunker has not moved since.
However, according to Desjardins, the waves have corroded the concrete blocks.
Desjardins is planning another $10 million renovation to better serve the many visitors, but even that doesn't include protection from ocean storms.
"We will have to change the way we do things," he said, adding that the region may want to "reduce" the large number of visitors to the area.
An ongoing study by local university professors on the societal perception of climate change and D-Day sites reveals mixed feelings:
Many people living near a site feel protective of it, but Normans generally accept that most will have to move, said Xavier Michel, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Caen who led the study.
Cécile Dumont, 92, is one of the few D-Day witnesses still alive.
He considers Utah Beach sacred land and would like the museum to remain there.
Cécile Dumont, 92, was a teenager when the Americans landed. "The ocean will take everything. We will have no choice," he said, referring to the invasion of the sea. Photo Andrea Mantovani for The New York Times
But, he acknowledges, it's unlikely.
"The ocean will take everything. We will have no choice," she says from her small stone house in Ste. Marie-du-Mont, surrounded by rose bushes and memories of a long life, like a shell that reaches her knee and now uses to store paper.
Dumont was a teenager on D-Day, and vividly remembers the sound of planes flying overhead, bomb explosions and gunfire.
His father, a dairy farmer, dug a trench next to the house, where the family spent nights praying for two weeks.
"The shelling didn't stop. It didn't last a single day," he says.
He watched in amazement as columns of soldiers arrived, first on foot, but quickly followed by tanks, jeeps and bulldozers.
On that first day, 23,000 troops, 1,700 vehicles and 1,800 tons of supplies arrived in Utah Beach.
They were followed by nearly half of the U.S. troops heading to the front – more than 800,000 troops – and all the supplies to support them, over the following months.
"People have to understand what happened here," he said.
Further east, at the Juno Beach Centre, a museum set in the spot where 14,000 Canadian soldiers landed on D-Day, a different conversation unfolds.
Actually, the beach has gotten thicker over the years, and its dunes have absorbed old German bunkers.
Still, Nathalie Worthington, director of the center, said:
"It's not a question of if we will flood, but when."
However, instead of spending money on protection plans, museum officials decided to invest in the global battle against what they consider the greatest current threat to peace and democracy:
In 2020, staff measured the museum's carbon footprint and committed to reducing it by 5% annually until 2050, in line with the French government's climate change strategy.
Since then, the centre has introduced a reduced "low-carbon" entrance price for visitors arriving by bike, reduced its energy consumption and ordered Canadian supplies from the gift shop by boat, rather than by plane.
They have also created a carbon sink, planting trees in a nearby forest, where Canadian troops collected wood during the war.
According to Worthington, they hope other museums will follow suit.
"They deserve more than to cry over their graves," Worthington said of former soldiers.
"They lost their lives to free us, to give us what we enjoy today.
What are we doing to maintain it?"
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