By Alexa Jindal
Dixie Kiefer was the first person to fly a plane off a moving ship at night, the recipient of 10 medals earned in both World Wars and a man with as many service-related injuries.
Yorktown Heights resident David Rocco honors the tragic, yet heroic story of the commodore in “The Indestructible Man,” a book he co-authored with war historian Don Keith. It was a story he stumbled upon several years ago.
Rocco, a retired carpenter who suffered a work-related injury in 2001, could have descended into idleness. Instead, he has become involved in numerous projects over the past 20 years, beginning in 2001 with the Hudson Walkway in Poughkeepsie, stating he had “too much to offer just to sit around.”
He then found another calling, the original inspiration for the Kiefer biography, through the Mount Beacon Fire Tower restoration, a community project he led. One of the participants had been hiking Mount Beacon and told Rocco about his discovery of a crash site. After hiking the mountain, he was stunned to learn there had been a Navy plane crash on Nov. 11, 1945, Armistice Day, which is now Veterans Day.
Rocco began investigating the fate of what has become known as the Mount Beacon Eight, a group of six sailors who died in that crash, and two others who perished in a different Navy transport flight crash 10 years earlier along the Hudson River in Fishkill, Dutchess County. He received the files he had requested from U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s office, which included a large stack of documents on Kiefer, who was killed in the 1945 crash.
Having had both grandfathers serve in World War I and his father, a World War II veteran who survived a kamikaze attack, something Kiefer experienced twice on the USS Ticonderoga, the story drew Rocco’s attention.
He compiled the information and enlisted Keith to work with him. He found there were connections between some of Keith’s books and portions of Kiefer’s story.
“It’s like a building block, one thing leads to another… sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes it’s a roadblock,” Rocco said.
Kiefer was one of the Navy’s best-known and well-regarded figures in World War II. When Rocco and Keith’s softcover version of the book was released in 2017, people from all over the country were calling him with connections.
“There was a guy who reached out to me and said his father was on line one day, on the Ticonderoga, and Dixie Kiefer came up to him and said, ‘Can I buy you an ice cream?’ To this day, it still makes my father smile, that Dixie Kiefer wanted to buy me an ice cream.”
It was those stories that helped people view Kiefer as a father figure.
“You could still see how much these guys loved this man,” said Rocco.
Kiefer was kind and treated everyone equally, despite living in a time when segregation was rampant.
Before the night of the crash, Kiefer took a couple of the young officers to an Army-Notre Dame football game at Yankee Stadium. One of those men was Clarence Hooper, an African American man Kiefer had been advocating for to receive pilot training.
Hooper was the only one of the Mount Beacon Eight whose grave, as Rocco discovered, was unmarked. Rocco had been to the graves of the seven others; four are in Arlington National Cemetery, one in New Jersey, one in Connecticut and another in Massachusetts. He didn’t have plans to fly to Greensboro, N.C., but he called up the cemetery hoping to receive a photograph for his records. Three days later, he was informed of Hooper’s unmarked grave.
Rocco made a few calls and had a headstone placed last Memorial Day weekend. They haven’t had an official ceremony because of COVID-19 restrictions, but when they do “I’m gonna go down for it because to me, of all the things I’ve come across, that is probably one of the more important things that I feel proud of in being part of this whole thing,” he said.
“That it’s not just a piece of grass anymore, it’s that this guy was recognized and is being honored,” Rocco added.
Rocco has conducted hikes up to Mount Beacon since 2015, raised money to put a historical marker at the crash sites and placed flags there as well. Much of this has been completed with the help of his group, Friends of the Mount Beacon Eight.
Kiefer helped the U.S. to victory in the Battle of Midway, earned the distinguished service medal for his key role in the Battle of Coral Sea and died at 49 years old, still not fully healed from his wounds.
Rocco has worked tirelessly to get the men who perished that night more than 75 years ago the recognition they deserve. He also hopes to turn “The Indestructible Man” into a documentary.
“It’s a story that needs to be told,” he said.