Saturday, July 29, 2017

Lost in the woods, the 1945 crash site of Navy hero

Clutching a bundle of American flags to his chest, Dave Rocco made his way up Mount Beacon, battling through the 90-degree heat and pain from his titanium knees.

Rocco, 60, negotiated the rocky path blazed 72 years ago by rescuers who hacked their way up the mountain following a plane crash some 1,100 feet up in the Hudson Highlands, a few miles east of Beacon, N.Y., a 75-minute drive north of New York City.

Rocco hopes to turn the rocky passage into a path of recognition to the place where a Navy transport plane went down in the rain and fog on Nov. 11, 1945, killing all six servicemen aboard.

"You can still see the scorched earth — it's still bare after 72 years," Rocco said of the crash site.

Rocco and some friends have been hiking to this wooded spot in recent years to tend it as a memorial to the victims, who included Commodore Dixie Kiefer, 49, a decorated Naval hero who served in both world wars.

Kiefer emerged as one of the most famous commanders in World War II, and received the Distinguished Service Medal from the Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, a Beacon native who nicknamed Kiefer "the indestructible man," for his having survived close brushes with death in battle.

A few months after receiving the award, Kiefer died on this ridge on a routine flight.

"Imagine surviving both World Wars and dying in a crash — ain't that a kick in the ass," Rocco said.

Rocco, a former carpenter for the New York City Housing Authority, has dedicated himself to drawing attention not only to Kiefer, but the other servicemen who died on Mount Beacon on Armistice Day in 1945, a predecessor to Veterans Day.

Memories of the crash have faded into the domain of local lore and some military buffs, said Rocco, who hopes to change that. He helped create a group to honor the victims and has led numerous hikes to the site. He has given presentations and found people with connections to the crash and victims. He is raising funds to have a memorial installed.

"Most of all, I just want their story to be told," said Rocco, who spent more than three years gathering research material on the crash through libraries, historical societies and government archives.

He said he attended a reunion of surviving sailors who served under Kiefer, "and every time I asked them about Dixie Kiefer, tears came down their faces."

Rocco is no writer, but in January he happened to pick up a book by Don Keith, an author in Alabama who specializes in military history and themes. Keith's books have been turned into movies, including "Firing Point," a 2012 submarine thriller that is being made into "Hunter Killer," a film starring Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton. Rocco contacted Keith and interested him in the crash and the story of Kiefer, a graduate of the Naval Academy who suffered 10 major wounds in the wars.

During the Battle of Midway in 1942, Kiefer survived the sinking of the USS Yorktown and was wounded while saving other sailors. During the kamikaze attacks on the Ticonderoga, he ordered the ship maneuvered in a way that saved many lives, even while he was badly wounded.

Keith agreed to write a book with Rocco, which resulted in the recently published biography, "The Indestructible Man: The True Story of World War II Hero 'Captain Dixie'."

At the crash site, Rocco pulled out two small boxes containing Kiefer's Navy medals. The "indestructible man" was less concerned with medals than the welfare of his sailors, Rocco said, adding that 240 of Kiefer's men rushed from the base to help with the rescue efforts.

After a 15-hour search, Kiefer's cap was found along with his charred remains. He was 49.

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