FISHKILL, N.Y. – When Yorktown resident David Rocco first heard of Capt. Dixie Kiefer, he knew his story needed to be told.
“He’s like a real life John Wayne,” Rocco said of the U.S. Navy officer who was so frequently injured in World War II that he was referred to by his peers as “The Indestructible Man.” That is also the title of Don Keith’s new book, which he self-published with the help of Rocco.
Indeed, in 1944, Kiefer survived two major naval battles—Midway and Coral Sea—while second in command of the carrier USS Yorktown, and, in 1945, he survived two Japanese kamikaze attacks while commander of the carrier USS Ticonderoga. The latter attacks killed 144 men and injured 200. An explosion during the second kamikaze attack left Kiefer with 65 wounds from bomb shrapnel and a broken arm. Despite the injuries, he remained in command for 11 hours.
“He was hit with 65 pieces of shrapnel, he had a busted arm, yet he refused to leave the bridge until everybody else was taken care of and the fires were put out,” Rocco said.
According to legend, the crew of Ticonderoga said of Kiefer, “He’s got so much metal in him the ship’s compass follows him when he walks across the deck.”
For his bravery and ingenuity during the kamikaze attacks, Kiefer received the Distinguished Service Medal from Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal, who coined the term, “The Indestructible Man.”
“Once I started to research Dixie Kiefer’s background, it was just mind-boggling that this guy was never mentioned,” Rocco said, puzzled as to why Kiefer is not as revered as other World War II heroes.
On Nov. 11, 1945, nearly a year after the attack on Ticonderoga, Kiefer was killed when his Navy transport plane crashed on Mount Beacon in the town of Fishkill. The crash killed five other Navy officers.
Coincidentally, there was also another plane crash in virtually the same location 12 years earlier on Sept. 14, 1935. Two Navy officers were killed in that crash.
The Friends of the Mount Beacon Eight often take hikes up to the 1945 crash site, where they have placed an American flag, a New York State flag and a U.S. Navy flag. A framed New York Times article from 1945 is also nailed to a tree, to educate hikers about the importance of the location.
“There’s still several pieces of the plane there to this day,” Rocco said.
For years, Rocco has wanted to tell Kiefer’s story to a wider audience, and use that biography to tie together the two plane crashes. He was often troubled by how few people in the area had ever heard of “The Indestructible Man.” “I love forgotten history, and it really, really bothered me that eight people died near there that very few people know about and were serving our country,” Rocco said. “I just felt like there were family members out there that would enjoy seeing one of their loved ones long forgotten remembered in some capacity.”
The idea of a book detailing Kiefer’s life remained in the back of Rocco’s mind for quite some time, but, being a carpenter by trade, he didn’t think he was the right man to write it.
“If I could get somebody else who could do a better job than me, I’m going to hire that person,” he said.
One day, Rocco needed a ride home from the Peekskill train station and decided to call his friend. His friend agreed, but told Rocco he needed to stop at BJ’s Wholesale Club on Crompond Road on the way there.
While in BJ’s, Rocco made his way over to the book section and purchased two books: “Undersea Warrior” and “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die,” both written by Don Keith. At home, Rocco began reading the author’s notes inside the book and noticed that Keith had written 30 books, 12 of which were about the Navy.
Rocco had found his guy.
“I sent him an email, described just about everything but without the specifics. I wanted to protect my idea,” Rocco said. “In less than three hours he wrote back to me: ‘I like what I hear, but I need more.’”
Rocco obliged and sent Keith everything he knew about Kiefer and the two plane crashes.
“He wrote back within the hour and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Rocco said.
Rocco said he and Keith have an unusual partnership.
“We’ve never met each other, we still haven’t spoken on the phone and we never signed a contract,” he said.
The self-published book, “The Indestructible Man: The True Story of World War II Hero ‘Captain Dixie’” went on sale July 2 and can be purchased at book stores or online.
Rocco recently lead a lecture on Kiefer and the Mount Beacon Eight at the Putnam History Museum.