2001-09-12 / Editorials


‘No Man Is An Island...’

To The Editor:

Those words, written by John Donne (1572–1631), are inspirational, but troublesome. A philosophy that one reaches for, but is never able to fully grasp. In a fast-lane world of self-interest, we seem to have forgotten how to put into practice what that poet preached.

Donne’s words reentered my mind recently, thanks to Kismet, when my path crossed that of several men, for what might be non-poetically called a "team effort," an effort that, so perfectly, exemplified. "No man is an island."

Perhaps they would prefer that I not write this: but, I feel compelled.

It’s a true story, and begins in Belgium 1944, during WW-II.

Corporal Charles Sellhorn was with the 50th Field Hospital, which after taking care of the wounded from the D-Day invasion, and, later in France, moved to Dave, Belgium in November. They were stationed there for two months.

One of the women in town offered to do the laundry for many of them. Her son, Gilbert Masson, carried the laundry the few miles back and forth. He also would bring home unused meat for their pig, one that the retreating Germans forgot.

One day, 12-year old Gilbert met Sellhorn and they became unusually good friends, exceptional friends. Sellhorn showed Gilbert rosaries and other religious articles that were meant for his family back in the U.S.

They took pictures together, played ball together. And, imagine the delight (a poor word) of this boy when he was allowed to eat with the soldiers in the mess tent. Quite a change, after the Nazi occupation of several, horrible years.

On Dec. 16th, the German army began its counter-attack (the famous Battle of the Bulge): the spearhead was aimed at Namur, about 25 miles from Dave, where the 50th was stationed.

What I, myself, find most poignant, is that the 50th was alerted to move quickly to Namur on Christmas Eve. By 5 a.m. Christmas Day they were again fully operational in Namur, where the army expected considerable casualties.

Gilbert went to the encampment on Christmas Day, only to find that the 50th had already gone. But, he did find a jacket and pair of shoes that Sellhorn had left for him. He also found, under one bunk, prayer books and other documents, copies of which I now have, and treasure as part of history.

Gilbert went to Namur, where he met Sellhorn again. The boy wanted to stay with Sellhorn, and go with the unit whenever they might leave. Sellhorn talked him out of it, but gave him his address in Astoria, so that at some unknown time, he could get in touch with him again.

That part of our story ends there.

Some time after the war, Gilbert wrote to Sellhorn in Astoria: but, his letter(s) were returned "unknown." His soldier–friend had moved somewhere after his discharge from the army.

He searched for his soldier–friend for many years. He tried the U.S. Embassy, the Belgian Red Cross, a TV station that helps to reunite people after a war, the American Vets of WW-II in Maryland and God only knows who else. But he never gave up trying.

Sometime in 2000, Gilbert read a chronicle written by Andre Scaillet, a writer/historian, that was a tribute to the 50th Field Hospital. In desperation, after so many years, he got in touch with Scaillet and asked for his help.

Scaillet somehow learned that Peter Vallone, Speaker of the City Council, lived in Astoria and, wrote to him on Nov. 13, 2000. Vallone tried Sellhorn’s Astoria address himself, but it was useless.

I feel that you should know part of what Scaillet wrote:

"A profound and sincere friendship developed, which Gilbert Masson has always cherished. I am confident that you, like myself, will be touched by the humanitarian nature of this search. Finding Corporal Sellhorn is of the utmost importance to him."

("No Man Is An Island...")

Unlike so many others, Peter Vallone didn’t turn his back on the 12-year old boy, now 68. He might not readily admit to being "humanitarian," but, actions speak louder than words.

Peter got in touch with columnist John Toscano, who wrote it up for the Gazette (Nov. 29th), asking for help in finding Sellhorn.

It borders upon a miracle that I chanced upon that article, since the Gazette seldom shows up in my neighborhood.

It certainly wasn’t easy, but we managed to find that Sellhorn had passed away in May of 1956 and is buried in the National Cemetery in Farmingdale. He died so young.

Peter Vallone was up to "here" with political obligations: so I volunteered to answer Andre Scaillet for him. Peter doesn’t know it, but letting me get involved has rejuvenated my aging "corpus." Together with so many other things, Scaillet sent me a photo of the U.S. memorial in Bastogne, which puts our U.S. to shame.

Rather than comment about Vallone’s getting involved, better that you read what Andre Scaillet has written in recent letters;

"Gilbert Masson has been searching for his friend for years. No one could do anything for him. But you managed to get a result, when no one else could.

"I was surprised to hear how much effort and good will were spent to bring this search to an end. Peter Vallone, John Toscano, not to mention yourself, you all contributed to the successful—although sad—closure for this quest.

"We thank you for your precious cooperation, and salute the high moral values that motivated your interest for this cause."

Our heartfelt gratitude,

A. Scaillet

A hand reached across an ocean for help, which was not denied. How many others, in a non-caring society, would have done as much?

A Belgian historian, a New York City Councilman, a newspaper columnist—quite an incongruous group! And, because of your unselfish efforts, a man—no, a 12-year old boy—has found closure.

Yes, he’ll grieve for a time: but will eventually find peace, for at least, now, he knows, and will search no longer.

It seems only fitting to end our story with the closing lines of John Donne - "Any man’s death diminishes me,

because I am involved in Mankind.

therefore, never send to know

for whom the bell tolls -

it tolls for three."

Ray Culkin

Fresh Meadows

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