‘Von Ryan Express’ author a POW for 869 days

U.S troops liberated a German prisoner-of-war camp on April 29, 1945 bringing to an end the 28-month ordeal of a Houston newspaperman turned bomber navigator.

Anyone, who has driven the streets of Texas’ largest city, has at one time or another ridden down Westheimer Road. Few realize, however, that the urban thoroughfare named for a nineteenth-century German immigrant is the longest in the entire Lone Star State.

Mitchell Louis Westheimer came to Texas in the 1850s. A huge success at every enterprise he tried, the businessman, who spoke seven languages, and his wife raised a houseful of children – eight of their own, three orphans and five more belonging to struggling relatives.

One of Westheimer’s many descendants was a great nephew named David Westheimer. Born in the Bayou City in 1917, he graduated from Rice Institute at age 20 and joined the staff of the Houston Post. He was juggling the dual duties of editor and columnist by the time the United States entered the Second World War and in short order put his civilian life on hold to enlist in the Army Air Forces.

On the morning of Dec. 11, 1942, a B-24 Liberator with the unwieldy name “Natchez to Mobile, Memphis to St. Jo” inspired by the comic strip Li’l Abner lumbered into the air from a field on the Suez Canal. The target of the day was the port of Naples 800 miles to the northwest on the coast of Italy.

The young lieutenant from Texas was one of eight crewmen on-board the four-engine bomber. It was Westheimer’s 29th mission and, unbeknownst to him, his last. He was about to be grounded for the duration.

The best-selling novelist waited more than 40 years to write his wartime memoir aptly titled Sitting It Out. But time had taken not the slightest toll on his recollection of the day his B-24 went down, which he described in riveting detail.

“We dropped our load and continued out to sea,” Westheimer wrote in 1992. “I gave Lt. Larry Kennedy, the pilot, the course for home. And then we were jumped by Macchi 202s. Italy’s frontline fighters.”

Westheimer immediately manned one of the .50 caliber guns in the nose of the plane. “I never got off a burst,” he admitted. “The Macchis were in and out too quickly for me.”

Crew members not tied up tending to wounded comrades kept trying to fend off the swarming fighters, but the bomber suffered serious damage despite their best efforts.

An oil leak caused an engine to freeze up starting a devastating domino effect. “That tore number 3 right out of the wing. It fell into number 4, knocking it out of the wing, too. I looked out the Plexiglass window into two gaping holes where the engines had been.”

The sudden loss of half its power sealed the fate of the “Natchez to Mobile, Memphis to St. Jo.” “We were losing altitude steadily. It was obvious we’d never make it back to the desert” was Westheimer’s matter-of-fact recollection of that sobering moment.

“I started figuring an alternate course to Malta, the nearest friendly territory. I gave that up when Kennedy (the pilot)…said he couldn’t maintain altitude and was going to land on the beach.”

But the coastline was too narrow to accommodate the crippled bomber. The pilot was forced to ditch the B-24 in the blue water of the Mediterranean a several hundred yards from shore.

Able-bodied airmen managed to pull their disabled companions to safety before the aircraft sank beneath the waves. They treaded water only a few minutes before being taken prisoner by a single Italian policeman and a couple of fishermen in a rowboat.

“We were the first American bomber shot down attacking Italy and maybe the first ever shot down by Italian fighters,” Westheimer wrote with a hint of embarrassment. “To paraphrase Mark Twain, given a choice, we probably would have declined the honor.”

During his long captivity, Westheimer thought he might become a farmer after the war, an odd daydream for a city slicker. Instead he chose writing and produced Summer on the Water, a fictional work that won the McMurray Book Store prize for the best Texas first novel of 1948.

He returned to The Post in the 1950’s as an editor and sometime columnist. On the writing front, he ground out suspense novels under the pseudonym “Z.Z. Smith” while finishing his next novel Watching Out for Dulie which was not as well received as his first.

But the Sixties proved to be his breakthrough decade. His WWII thriller Von Ryan’s Express was the February 1964 Book-of-the-Month Club selection and later made into a major motion picture starring Frank Sinatra. His next novel My Sweet Charlie (1965) sold almost as many copies before he adapted the story for the Broadway stage.

David Westheimer continued to write right up until the end of his long life. His final novel Delay en Route came out in 2002, three years before his death from a heart attack at the age of 88.

“Unforgettable Texans,” Bartee’s fourth and latest book, is still available. Get your copy by mailing a check for $28.80 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393 or order on-line at barteehaile.com.

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