Westheimer, David Kaplan (1917–2005)


By: Mike Zambrano, Jr.

Type: Biography

Published: June 22, 2022

Updated: June 22, 2022


David Kaplan Westheimer, novelist, screenwriter, columnist, and prisoner of war during World War II, was born in Houston, Texas, on April 11, 1917. He was the son of Adolf and Ester (Kaplan) Westheimer and the great-nephew to Mitchell Louis Westheimer, a successful and wealthy Houston businessman. In 1933 Westheimer graduated from San Jacinto High School in Houston, and in 1937 he graduated from Rice Institute (Rice University today) with a bachelor of arts degree. In 1939 he began work as a columnist for the Houston Post, where he wrote articles about music, movies, and theater for the amusements department.

On September 13, 1941, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. His eyesight prevented him from becoming a pilot so he trained as a navigator and was assigned to the 344th Bombardment Squadron, 98th Bombardment Group (Heavy), U. S. Army Air Forces, flying Consolidated B-24D Liberators. First Lieutenant Westheimer’s B-24 (#41-11797) was named Natchez to Mobile, Memphis to St. Jo; a name inspired by the lyrics of the contemporary popular song “Blues in the Night” and the Li’l Abner comic strip of the day. On July 18, 1942, the 344th departed Morrison Field in West Palm Beach, Florida, and arrived at RAF Ramat David, Palestine, a week later.

On December 11, 1942, Westheimer’s B-24, one of seventeen, departed RAF Gambut in northern Libya to bomb the harbor at Naples, Italy. Natchez successfully dropped its payload, but Italian fighters immediately attacked and damaged the Liberator, causing it to ditch in the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Salerno; it was Westheimer’s twenty-ninth and last mission. He was quarantined at the Convent of San Valentino outside of the small town of Poggio Mirteto before being transferred to Campo Concentramento Prigionieri de Guerra 21 (P.G. 21) near the town of Chieti in January 1943. While there he was informed that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his missions.

In September 1943 Italy capitulated, and the Germans took possession of P.G. 21 and relocated the prisoners to Camp 78, near Sulmona, Italy. After a short stay, they were moved to another temporary location: Stalag VII-A, the largest POW camp in Germany near Moosburg, Bavaria. Weisheimer’s final destination was Stalag Luft III located near the village of Zagan, Poland. The camp is best remembered for the British mass escape, which later became the 1963 film, The Great Escape. Westheimer remained there until January 1945, when the camp was evacuated due to the approaching Russians. He was relocated back to Stalag VII-A. On April 29, 1945, the Fourteenth Armored Division liberated the camp. As a liberated POW, Westheimer was sent to Camp Lucky Strike near Saint-Valery-en-Caux, France, a processing center repatriating American POW’s back to the United States. There Westheimer briefly meet Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, in May 1945.

Upon returning home, Westheimer resumed working for the Houston Post until 1960, when he moved to Los Angeles; he returned to the Post (though he remained in Los Angeles) as a columnist in the 1980s. On October 9, 1945, he married Doris “Dody” Kahn (maiden name Rothstein) in Houston. Though he was discharged on February 3, 1946, he was recalled in October 1950 during the Korean War and assigned to the Pentagon where, as a captain, he was editor of the personnel newsletter; he was discharged in June 1953. Westheimer remained in the U. S. Air Force Reserve into the 1960s and ultimately achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.  

His first book, Tillie (originally Summer on the Water) was published in 1948 and told the story a secret interracial relationship in the Deep South. Westheimer followed it with The Magic Fallacy (1950) and Watching Out for Dulie (1960). One of his most popular works came in 1963 when he novelized J. P. Miller’s play The Days of Wine and Roses. In the original printings, Westheimer’s name appeared in the byline, but as the book grew in popularity, his name was removed.

Westheimer’s most successful novel came in 1964—Von Ryan’s Express. In the book a large group of British and American POWs hijack a train and, with the Germans close behind, make a desperate dash for the Swiss border. Westheimer drew upon his experiences as a prisoner of war. The novel was so popular that it was turned into a film starring Frank Sinatra and Trevor Howard; it was his only bestseller. In 1965, in response to the civil rights movement, Westheimer wrote My Sweet Charlie, a story about an unlikely relationship between an African American lawyer and activist and a White pregnant teenage runaway. The novel was made into a Broadway play in 1966 and a television movie in 1970. The movie won several Emmy Awards.

Westheimer touched on military themes in other books such as Song of the Young Sentry (1968), Death is Lighter than a Feather (1971), Rider on the Wind (1979), The Great Wounded Bird and Other Poems (2000), and Delay En Route (2002). In 1967 he wrote a screenplay for an NBC pilot called Campo 44. The comedy revolved around an Italian POW camp during World War II. The network declined to pick up the show, and critics panned it as a Hogan’s Heroes rip-off. He continued to work in television and wrote screenplays for Trouble Comes to Town (1972) and A Killer Among Us (1990) as well as episodes for the television series Lucan (1978) and Airwolf (1986). In 1992 he wrote Sitting It Out: A World War POW Memoir, his only work recounting his personal experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II.

On November 8, 2005, David Westheimer died of heart failure at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife Dody, his sons Fred and Eric, his five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. His ashes were scattered at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.

“David Westheimer,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/12335401/david-westheimer), accessed June 13, 2022. Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2005. National Archives and Records Administration, World War II Prisoners of War Data File [Archival Database]; Records of World War II Prisoners of War, 1942–1947. New York Times, November 20, 2005. Records of the Office of the Provost Marshal General, Record Group 389, David K. Westheimer, National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland. David Westheimer, Sitting It Out: A World War II POW Memoir (Houston: Rice University Press, 1992).

Categories:
  • Journalism
  • Newspapers
  • Editors and Reporters
  • Military
  • World War II
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Authors and Writers
  • Literature
  • Dramatists and Novelists
  • Memoirs, Diaries, Letters, and Travel
  • Screenwriters
  • Peoples
  • Jews
Time Periods:
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • East Texas
  • Upper Gulf Coast
  • Houston

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mike Zambrano, Jr., “Westheimer, David Kaplan,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/westheimer-david-kaplan.

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June 22, 2022
June 22, 2022

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