Decades later, East Tenn. Veteran receives salute in mail

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KINGSTON, Tenn. (WVLT) -- The Brookdale Senior Living facility in Kingston, Tennessee, saddles a breathtaking backdrop where the Clinch River meets Watts Bar Lake. But inside the building, one man is holding onto a story that might take your breath away.

At 93-years-old, Gerald Lay pulls his pilot jacket from World War II out of the closet, off the hanger, and throws it on. Immediately, it takes him back to March of 1944 and his second bombing mission. He piloted the "Pennsy Bell" into Germany, guiding 1200 bomber planes targeting oil refineries. The plane was quickly hit by anti-aircraft fire, and all four engines went out. Lay recalls jumping from the plane with a faulty parachute hoping it would open.

"We were losing altitude pretty fast so we decided we better go ahead and bail out. As soon as I got clear of the plane, I opened up and it opened. I was happy to have the parachute open and I was wondering then, 'Where am I going to hit?'" said Lay.

Turns out, he landed close to the Rhine River on November 25, the day before the Battle of the Bulge. His plane crashed into a home in Marienberg, Germany. From there, Lay was captured by German troops and spent six months in the Stalag 1 Prisoner of War camp in Barth, Pomerania, before the war ended.

"It was a successful mission, we heard later," said Lay. But had anyone else heard? And better yet, would anyone remember?

At least one person was always willing to listen. Lay's great-grandson Caleb said he grew up hearing the war stories, and by the time he entered high school, he was fascinated.

Caleb signed up for an exchange program and couldn't believe his assignment, "I was like, there’s no way, this is insane!" His teacher handed him a piece of paper indicating where his host family lived, "It was 30 minutes from all these stories he’d been telling me." Just 30 minutes away from the town where Caleb's great-grandfather landed in his parachute during the war.

Once in Germany, Caleb spent weeks with his host family touring his great-grandfather's path during the war. "When we got to those places, where he landed, where he was interrogated, I couldn’t speak. I just had to sit and take in the moment. Those were things I never thought I’d get to see," Caleb mused.

They were places Lay never thought he'd see again. But Caleb made sure to document his trip, and he returned with photographs. Lay scrolled through the pictures, recognizing the place where his plane had crashed, the river where he landed in his parachute, and the places where he was interrogated by German soldiers.

Lay said it brought back memories. Caleb said it caused something inside him to stir, "My flesh and blood was standing in this spot 73 years ago, and now I’m standing here four generations later in the same spot. It was really exhilarating to take it all in."

Caleb did more than just take it all in. Outside a dorm room at the University of Tennessee, Caleb zipped up his fatigues and laced on his boots. That's when it became clear he tried on his great-grandfather's life, and he liked how it fit. "That’s definitely who I’m serving for. He’s an amazing man, and I’d like to be half the man he is," said Caleb.

Caleb is enrolled in ROTC and hopes to fly black hawk helicopters as an officer in the military. "I hope that one day somebody remembers me specifically for what I did for them."

What Caleb hopes for himself, he helped deliver to his great-grandfather. Back at Brookdale Senior Living in Kingston, Gerald Lay opened an envelope and discovered that 73 years after his mission in World War Two, recognition had arrived in the mail.

"We want to pay a high tribute to you and your mission during WWII. Because of people, soldiers like you, in Germany today we live in freedom and peace, thank you for this," Lay read from the letter inside. It was written by Caleb's German host family.

In a way, just like the bomber jacket that still fits Lay so well, this recognition fits perfectly in the palm of his hand.