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WWII veteran, 100, to marry fiancee, 96, at France's D-Day celebration

Harold Terens will head to France in late May to be honored by the French government and to put a ring on his fiancee's finger.
World War II veteran Harold Terens, 100, right, and Jeanne Swerlin, 96, share a laugh.
Posted at 6:21 PM, Mar 12, 2024

Harold Terens and his fiancee Jeanne Swerlin kissed and held hands like high school sweethearts as they discussed their upcoming wedding in France, a country the World War II veteran first visited as a 20-year-old U.S. Army Air Forces corporal shortly after D-Day.

Terens, a gregarious and energetic 100-year-old, will be honored in June by the French as part of the 80th anniversary celebration of their country's liberation from the Nazis. Then he plans to marry the sprightly 96-year-old Swerlin in a town near the beaches where U.S. troops landed.

"I love this girl — she is quite special," said Terens, who has been dating Swerlin since 2021. To demonstrate their fondness for dancing, they had Siri play "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars and then jumped, twisted and gyrated like teens at homecoming.

AP / Terens and Swerlin dance.

"He's an amazing guy, amazing," Swerlin said. "He loves me so much and he says it."

"And my god, he's the greatest kisser," she said.

The couple, who are each widowed, grew up in New York City: she in Brooklyn, he in the Bronx. They laugh at how differently they experienced World War II. She was in high school and dated soldiers who gave her war souvenirs like dog tags, knives and even a gun, trying to impress.

Terens enlisted in 1942 and shipped to Great Britain the following year, attached to a four-pilot P-47 Thunderbolt fighter squadron as their radio repair technician. Terens said his original pilots all died in the war.

"I loved all those guys. Young men. The average age was 26," he said.

On D-Day — June 6, 1944 — Terens helped repair planes returning from France so they could rejoin the battle. He said half his company's pilots died that day.

Terens went to France 12 days later, helping transport freshly captured Germans and just-freed American POWs back to England. To him, the Germans seemed happy because they would survive the war. The Americans, however, had been brutalized by their Nazi captors over months and even years.

"They were in a stupor," he said.

He then went on a secret mission — even he didn't know his destination. His planes hopscotched North Africa before eventually landing in Tehran. There, he survived a robbery that left him naked in the desert and fearing death until an American military police patrol happened by.

He learned the details of his covert mission when he was deposited at a Soviet airfield in Ukraine. As part of a new strategy, American bombers would fly from Britain to attack Axis targets in Eastern Europe. They didn't have enough fuel to return so they would fly to the USSR. Terens' job was to get the crews fed and the injured treated before they flew their refueled planes home.

AP / Terens holds a wartime photo of himself.

Terens soon contracted dysentery, which almost killed him. In another close call, a British barkeep refused to serve him past the mandatory closing time despite his pleadings for just one more drink. Moments after he was kicked out, a German rocket destroyed the pub.

Following the Nazi surrender in May 1945, Terens again helped transport freed Allied prisoners to England before he shipped back to the U.S. a month later.

He married his wife Thelma in 1948 and they had two daughters and a son. He became a U.S. vice president for a British conglomerate. They moved from New York to Florida in 2006 after Thelma retired as a French teacher; she died in 2018 after 70 years of marriage. He has eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Swerlin married at 21 and was a full-time mom to two girls and a boy before being widowed in her 40s. Her second husband died after 18 years of marriage. She then lived with Sol Katz for 25 years before his death in 2019. She has seven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

It was Katz's daughter, Joanne Schosheim, who introduced her to Terens in 2021.

She met Terens when her children attended camp with his grandchildren years ago and remained friends. She and a friend thought the two might hit it off, so invited them to lunch.

"She gave my dad such joy," Schosheim said of Swerlin. "I didn't want her to be lonely."

But after Thelma's death, Terens wasn't interested in other women and barely noticed Swerlin.

"I didn't even look at her. I didn't even talk to her," he said.

"I looked at him. He looked at me," Swerlin said, but "it was like nothing."

Even so, Terens' buddy Stanley Eisenberg took them to dinner the next night. Eisenberg wanted to see who his friend had dismissed.

It was love at second sight.

"I had never seen him lit up like that," Eisenberg said.

Terens couldn't talk or eat, and that's not like him.

"I said, 'You're in love,'" Eisenberg said. "He said, 'I don't know. I've never had these feelings before.'"

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After that date, Swerlin said, Terens "didn't give me a chance" to turn him down. At 94, she also was in love.

"He was introducing me to the whole world, 'I want you to meet my girl, my sweetheart,' and I didn't even know him more than two days," she said, laughing. "Being in love is not just for the young. We get butterflies just like everybody else."

Terens proposed a few months ago, kneeling to give Swerlin a ring.

"She got hysterical" with delight, he said.

"I thought I'd have to help him up, but he's so macho," she said.

The couple and their families will head to Paris in late May, where Terens and a handful of surviving World War II veterans will be honored. Of the 16 million American WWII veterans, only 120,000 remain, the government says.

It will be Terens' fourth D-Day celebration in France. He received a medal from President Emmanuel Macron five years ago.

The families then will travel to the town of Carentan-les-Marais, where the couple plan to be married June 8 by Mayor Jean-Pierre Lhonneur in a chapel built in the 1600s. Lhonneur said because of the American sacrifice on D-Day, more U.S. flags fly in the area than French.

"Normandy is the 51st state," he said.

Lhonneur explained legally he is only allowed to marry town residents, but he thinks the local prosecutor will let him make an exception.

"It will be a pleasure for us," the mayor said.