It was nothing new for British fisherman Steve Gowan to find a bottle or two in his net. But the ginger beer bottle he snared at the mouth of the Thames March 27 was special. Inside was an envelope: "Kindly forward this letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front.... Pvt. T. Hughes, Durham Light Infantry." Gowan stared at the date: "This ninth day of September, 1914." Delicately, he opened the envelope. "Dear Wife," read the note within, "I am writing this letter on the boat and throwing it in [the English Channel] just to see if it will reach you.... Ta, Ta sweet." London's Sun newspaper helped ID the soldier as Thomas Hughes, who died in France 12 days after his gesture. "It was," Gowan says, "his very first day in the trenches."

Hughes's body was never recovered, but in a sense, he has come home. A descendant read an article on Gowan's catch and told The Sun that Hughes's widow, Elizabeth, had remarried and moved with their daughter Emily to New Zealand. Elizabeth died in 1979, but Emily Crowhurst, 86, is alive. New Zealand's postal service flew Gowan to Auckland, and on May 17 he presented the bottle to the tearful grandmother of seven. She has no memory of her father, but now feels she knows him just a little. "He must have been," she says, "a romantic and caring man."