The Indestructible Man: The Story of Dixie Kiefer

Beacon honors the life — and implausible death — of a war hero

Dixie Kiefer was a bona fide war hero. He was a Navy commander who, during World War II, saw fearsome action in some of the worst battles of the Pacific. He was perhaps the most frequently wounded officer in the Navy; one of his crewmen reportedly once said, “He’s got so much metal in him, the ship’s compass follows him when he walks across the deck.”

On January 21, 1945, the USS Ticonderoga, under Kiefer’s command, was hit twice by Japanese kamikaze bomber planes. Despite devastating losses and his own injuries, he brought his ship to safety. After the attack, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal, just one of the many medals he earned over the course of his career, including the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart with Gold Star, the Victory Medal, Patrol Clasp (USS Corona), the American Defense Service Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars, and the World War II Victory Medal.

His fame was such that he was featured as “Captain Dixie” in a Navy-produced documentary, The Fighting Lady, which won an Academy Award in 1945. When he received yet another award, the Distinguished Service Medal, Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal called Kiefer “the indestructible man.”

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Related: James V. Forrestal: “Beacon’s Favorite Son”

But on November 11, 1945, the indestructible man was destroyed. Kiefer died when his Navy transport plane crashed into Mount Beacon, overlooking Forrestal’s hometown. Irony is too small a word to describe the loss.

This month, 70 years after the death of Kiefer and five other veterans, a small group of volunteers who call themselves the Friends of the Mount Beacon Six are holding a ceremony to honor their memory. David Rocco, one of the Friends, is a retired carpenter who has volunteered on lots of local projects, including the Walkway Over the Hudson and the Mount Beacon Fire Tower restoration. During that last project, he heard, inadvertently, about “a legend by the name of Dixie Kiefer,” he recalls. “I dug into it and kept getting more and more engrossed in it. It was like peeling an onion. I was fascinated.” As you will be.

dixie kiefer warplane

Courageous Captain: Navy Officer Dixie Kiefer survived numerous attacks from kamikaze bombers during World War II. Captain Dixie and five other servicemen were flying out of Stewart Airfield in Newburgh when their transport plane crashed into Mount Beacon

Extraordinary Heroism

Dixie Kiefer was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, on April 4, 1896. He entered the Naval Academy in 1915 and served in Europe at the end of World War I. After the Great War, he became a pilot in the new aviation branch of the Navy, and in 1924, he made the first nighttime take-off from a warship.

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As World War II broke out, Kiefer, now a commander, served as executive officer — second in command — of the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in the Battle of Coral Sea and the critical Battle of Midway, where on June 4, 1942, he helped defeat the Japanese Navy — the first such defeat in 350 years. The Yorktown was lost during the battle, and according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website, “When the stricken vessel was being gutted by raging fires, [Kiefer], being unable to obtain rescue breathing apparatus from his own smoke-filled cabin, entered the photographic laboratory, which was a flaming inferno from burning films, and conducted the first fire-fighting there. Later, while directing the abandonment of the Yorktown, Commander Kiefer, in lowering an injured man into a life raft, burned his hands so severely that when he himself went over the side and descended by line, he was unable to support his own weight. In the resultant fall, he struck the ship’s armor belt and suffered a compound fracture of the foot and ankle. Despite acute pain, he gallantly swam alongside and pushed a life raft toward a rescuing destroyer until he became so completely exhausted that he had to be pulled out of the water.”

“Despite acute pain, he gallantly swam alongside and pushed a life raft toward a rescuing destroyer”

He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for “exceptionally meritorious service… (he) contributed greatly toward bringing the ship and her air group to a high state of morale, efficiency, and readiness for battle exhibited by the Yorktown in her splendid contribution to the victory attained by our forces in the actions comprising the Battle of the Coral Sea…” He was also awarded the Navy Cross for “extraordinary heroism as executive officer of the USS Yorktown in preparations for, during, and after action against enemy Japanese forces in the Battle of Midway.”

Kiefer was hospitalized until January 1943. In April 1944, he took command of the USS Ticonderoga. On January 21, 1945, two enemy planes struck the ship near Formosa, killing 144 men and injuring 200 others, including him. The first kamikaze started large fires, but, despite his own wounds, Kiefer remained on the bridge for 12 hours and got the ship out of danger. In a reportedly unprecedented maneuver, he deliberately flooded part of the ship to put it on a 10-degree list, which caused the flaming debris to slide overboard. Then he moved the ship away from the burning wreckage. For his services in command of the Ticonderoga, he was awarded the Silver Star Medal.

dixie kiefer plane crash site in newburgh
Remains from the crash can still be seen on the mountain

Photograph by David Rocco

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Hallowed Ground

Kiefer returned to the US, and after another hospital stay, he was appointed commander of Naval Air Bases, First Naval District, with additional duty as commander, Naval Air Station, Quonset Point, Rhode Island. On November 11, his arm still in a cast from his wounds in January, he and five other servicemen were flying from New Jersey to Quonset in a Navy transport plane. It was a dreary, rainy morning as the plane flew over Stewart Airfield in Newburgh, and the plane flew so low Beacon residents reportedly heard it over the city. Then they heard an explosion.

The crash site wasn’t found until 15 hours later, in the woods near the northwest ridge of Mount Beacon. All six aboard were dead. Dixie Kiefer was identified, in part, by the cast on his arm. There are pieces of the plane resting at the crash site to this day.

Along with the ceremony the Mount Beacon Six (now called “Mount Beacon Eight” to honor two additional servicemen who’d lost their lives on the mountain) will hold on November 11, the group hopes to get a plaque honoring the dead placed at the Town of Fishkill War Memorial Park on Route 52. They also want to put a monument at the site, because, as Rocco says, “it is hallowed ground.”

If you go…

When: Saturday, November 14 at 1 p.m.
Where: Town of Fishkill War Memorial Park, Rte. 52, Fishkill

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