MEDIA

Indestructible: Dixie Kiefer

By CAPT David Poyer '71, USNR (Ret.)

Familiar to the homefront in World War II from movies and articles, Commodore Dixie Kiefer of the Class of 1919 might have led the Navy into the Atomic Age, but a tragic crash nearly erased him from our memories. Until now, when we celebrate and remember the life of Kiefer—100 years after his graduation.

You can still watch Dixie Kiefer at the climax of his career in the Academy Award-winning 1944 documentary “The Fighting Lady,” directed by the famous photographer Edward Steichen, as it was restored and colorized in 2012. In the movie, a pudgy and somewhat rumpled “Captain Dixie” addresses his crew: “Men, as soon as I finish talking, we are getting underway ... As you know, our final destination is a place called Tokyo. We’ll have to fight hard to get there; but when we drop our hook in Yokohama, I’m going to throw a party. All hands are cordially invited!”

The film reminds us of the most glorious days of the U.S. Navy, when the Carrier Navy redeemed all its promises by winning a Pacific war. The 75-year- old movie shows its age with cigarettes, pin-up girls and outmoded references to the enemy. The friendly, easy-going and party-throwing Kiefer was part of that action, “squat and chunky, not very much of a Hollywood type.” The movie also features Admiral John S. McCain Jr. ’31, USN.

Dixie (no middle name) Kiefer hailed from Blackfoot, ID, and went to high school in Lincoln, NE, before being appointed to the Naval Academy in 1915. His unusual name came from his Aunt Dixie. His Lucky Bag entry makes for puzzling reading: “Dixie is the Academy Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. If we attempted to even mention the number of incidents he has crowded into his career here, it would take volumes. How he saluted the doorman of the Hotel Knickerbocker; how he fell overboard when visiting the Admiral in the capacity of Skipper's orderly; how he had the class standing at attention two hours in the corridor owing to his penchant for fishing with a wastebasket in Youngster court; how he hid behind the piano in Rec Hall the day a fair inhabitant of our modern Athens came to see him; how—but enough.” He also seemed to attract a good deal of flak for his weight, an affliction that would dog him throughout his career.

The Class of 1919 was graduated and commissioned a year early, in June 1918, because of the demands of World War I. Kiefer’s first assignment was to CORONA, a converted motor yacht that escorted convoys and patrolled the Channel and French coast from 1917 until war’s end. Following that, he was assigned to a daunting undertaking: mine clearing duty. Not only were there 56,000 mines laid at varying depths across the notoriously stormy North Sea, but no one had ever swept for magnetic mines before, so technique and equipment had to be improvised.

When this dangerous operation concluded, Kiefer was ordered back to the U.S. for assignment aboard PENNSYLVANIA. He served aboard the battleship for two years, and in 1922 he requested aviation duty.

The Navy was still feeling its way into aviation in the 1920s, and it was unclear which path led to the future—seaplanes, flying boats, wheeled aircraft or lighter-than-air dirigibles like the giant SHENANDOAH (ZR-1), commissioned around this time. After pilot training, Kiefer reported to Aircraft Squadron, Battle Fleet, as a seaplane pilot. He accomplished the first night takeoff from a battleship, being catapulted off CALIFORNIA in a Vought UO-1 on 11 November 1924 in San Diego harbor.

After serving as an instructor in Pensacola, FL, and making recon flights over the great Mississippi Flood of 1927,9 Keifer requested postgraduate education. Though largely forgotten today, the Postgraduate Department had been active at the Academy since 1912, teaching ordnance, electrical engineering, radio, naval construction, civil engineering and marine and later aeronautical engineering. (The Naval Postgraduate School didn’t move to Monterey until 1951.) In 1929, following graduation, he reported to LEXINGTON (CV-2), the Navy’s second purpose-built carrier.

Kiefer never married, unless you consider his single-minded dedication to the Navy a committed relationship. In the 1930s his career was interrupted by two accidents. In the first, he ran from his Pearl Harbor office to help extinguish a fire in a yard motorboat. In the second, a buddy in a seaplane buzzed him so low on SARA’s flight deck that the pontoon broke Dixie’s right arm.

By May of 1941, Kiefer was executive officer of WRIGHT (AV-1), a dirigible tender reassigned to transport duty. WRIGHT was underway between Midway and Pearl on 7 December, having just delivered building materials to Midway. In February 1942, the hefty and rumpled-looking Commander Kiefer became executive officer of YORKTOWN (CV- 5), beginning a wartime career that would make the bones he’d broken and fires he’d fought so far seem like just a warmup.

In another reminder of how different things were, though the Navy was officially as dry then as it is now, Kiefer convened regular drinking parties for pilots aboard the carrier. He called these social gatherings the “YORKTOWN Cocktail Club.”

YORKTOWN fought as part of Task Force 17 in the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 when U.S. and Imperial Japanese carrier groups clawed at each other in a tight, confused battlespace. On 8 May, YORKTOWN’s planes damaged the Japanese SHOKAKU. The counterstrike arrived that afternoon, and both LEXINGTON and YORKTOWN were hit. The former eventually was lost, but after damage was contained aboard YORKTOWN, Kiefer convened another impromptu cocktail party. He received the Distinguished Service Medal for his “sound judgment, thorough planning and indefatigable zeal, unbounded enthusiasm and courageous example.”
YORKTOWN had survived, but when she arrived back at Pearl Harbor it was estimated that her repairs would take three months. But Admiral Chester Nimitz, USN, of the Class of 1905, needed every carrier afloat for a secret operation. He looked her over, and gave the yard a week. Meanwhile her exec was as busy as can be imagined, especially as he had to integrate new aircraft and crew. The ship was hastily patched in only three days and sent back to sea headed for Point Luck and immortality.

The Battle of Midway, as everyone knows, was the turning point of the Pacific War. It may have been four carriers to three, advantage Japan, but the Americans knew the enemy’s plans and routes in advance.16 Navy Air struck on 4 June 1942, setting on fire three Imperial Japanese Navy carriers. Hiryu’s counterstrike plastered YORKTOWN with three bombs. One knocked Kiefer to the flight deck, wounding him in the shoulder and leg. Running to the hangar deck, he realized the photo lab, crammed with flammable film and chemicals, was on fire. Grabbing a hose, he’d just knocked the fire down when torpedoes from bombers Nakajima B5N, “Kates” as termed by the Allies, slammed into the hull. With his ship losing power, flooding and listing hard, Captain Elliott Buckmaster, USN, of the Class of 1912, gave the order to abandon.

The story wasn’t over. When YORKTOWN was still afloat the next morning, Buckmaster sent Kiefer back aboard in charge of a damage control party to try to save her. Kiefer managed to stabilize her, but on 6 June, while under tow, YORKTOWN was torpedoed again by a Japanese submarine I-168. Kiefer had to abandon ship a second time, but this time he lost his grip on the line he was descending, stripping the skin from both palms and breaking a foot and ankle as he hit the armor belt on the way down. He kept fighting, though, to make sure the sailors in his rafts were picked up. Kiefer was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Navy Cross for his heroism aboard YORKTOWN.

After his recovery and light duty at training commands in the continental United States, Kiefer took over as commanding officer of the newly constructed TICONDEROGA (CV-14). She was commissioned in June 1944, when he gave the talk over the 1MC (1 Main Circuit, or shipboard public address) recorded in “The Fighting Lady.”

Kiefer’s command style as a commanding officer was about as far as possible from the style of then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, USN, of the Class of 1901. King had a reputation of being “cold, aloof and impossibly demanding in many situations.” Dixie was jovial, approachable and enjoyed a strong cocktail and a good party. He often offered rides to enlisted men and glad-handed his way around the ship. He in no way condoned slackness; he trained his men hard, but also believed that sports, relaxation and the occasional drink together promoted bonding and eased wartime stress. When underway, the chunky “Cap’n Dixie” preferred the open bridge atop the island rather than the “forward conn.” There he would be protected by armor, but he could neither see nor inspire his men by being seen. He also addressed the crew on the 1MC several times a day, keeping them updated on the ship’s activities and plans.

After workups in the Caribbean and training at Pearl, TICONDEROGA reached the western Pacific in October 1944. Operating from Ulithi Atoll with Task Force 38, through November and December she pounded Luzon, Japanese convoys and the Manila Bay area, dodging kamikazes but as yet untouched. Later that same month, Kiefer navigated Tico through the disastrous Typhoon Cobra that sank three other ships. He did so largely by disregarding the course orders of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, USN, of the Class of 1904, and steering out of the storm.

In January, TICO carried out strikes on the Ryukyus and Formosa, Luzon, Indochina and Hong Kong, usually in bad weather. By that point in the war, the Navy seemed to have the run of the Pacific. But on 21 January 1945, TICO’s and Kiefer’s luck ran out.
The sky was clear, and Tico wasn’t even at general quarters when the dark silhouette of a dive bomber came out of the sun. It crashed through the flight deck near the Number Two 5-inch mount, angled down. The bomb it was carrying exploded just above the hangar deck, and nearby planes burst into flames.28  Burning aviation fuel ran down hatches, which had been built without coamings, spreading the fire to the decks below and putting the whole ship at risk.

The Dictionary of Fighting Ships reads: “Capt. Kiefer conned his ship smartly. First, he changed course to keep the wind from fanning the blaze. Then, he ordered magazines and other compartments flooded to prevent further explosions and to correct a 10-degree starboard list. Finally, he instructed the damage control party to continue flooding compartments on Ticonderoga’s port side. That operation induced a 10-degree port list which neatly dumped the fire overboard! Firefighters and plane handlers completed the job by dousing the flames and jettisoning burning aircraft.”

Meanwhile, other kamikazes continued to attack the burning Tico. Though most were shot down, another plane got through, hitting the flight deck again, this time at the base of the island. This second impact sprayed fragments and fire over the bridge area where Kiefer was fighting the ship from. The total damage count: wrecked radio and radar gear, 36 aircraft destroyed, and 143 dead and 202 wounded.

The wounded included Kiefer, who was severely hurt, with a compound fracture of the right arm and 65 other wounds on his head and other areas his flak jacket hadn’t protected. A medic tried to dress his bleeding gashes and got him to lie down on a mattress. But his executive officer had also been severely wounded, so Kiefer refused to leave the bridge for further treatment. In fact, despite pleas for him to go below, he stayed there for the next 11 or 12 hours, directing the firefighting and damage control.

Sometime during this period, the task force commander asked if Kiefer planned to abandon ship. Probably remembering YORKTOWN’s premature abandonment, Kiefer snapped to the radioman, “Hell, no.” He stayed on the bridge until midnight. “Only then, when someone reported that every injured man had now gotten medical attention, did Dixie Kiefer allow two corpsmen to lay him down on a stretcher and haul him down to sick bay.”

In Ulithi, Kiefer was transferred to SAMARITAN, a hospital ship. After recuperation at Naval Hospital Bethesda, MD, he was discharged and promoted to commodore in May 1945. Still typically modest, it was around this time he said, “I’m a professional man, just paying back the United States for a marvelous education and 30 years steady employment at a good job with good pay ... I’m not like the reserves who volunteered to go to war with far less training. There’s nothing heroic about us ‘regulars.’ We weren’t giving up homes, good jobs, pleasant shore lives to go to sea.”

The Secretary of the Navy, James V. Forrestal, called Kiefer “the indestructible man” when awarding him the Distinguished Service Medal for his heroism in the Pacific Theater. With his arm still in a cast and with several still-unhealed other wounds, he was assigned as commanding officer of Quonset Point Naval Air Station, where his mother and sister moved in with him. As commanding officer, he set up clambakes, skating and hunting parties, steak dinners and, of course, more happy hours.

But Dixie had a rendezvous with fate. In November 1945, he flew to Caldwell, NJ, in a Beechcraft Expeditor with several other servicemen to attend the Army-Notre Dame football game at Yankee Stadium. They left on their return flight on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month (then Armistice Day, now Veterans Day). During the return flight, the plane crashed, 1,100 feet up the western flank of the north peak of Mt. Beacon, near the town of Fishkill, NY. None of the six men aboard survived. The bodies were so badly burned that Kiefer was identified by the cast on his arm and his ID tags.

Dixie Kiefer was buried with military honors in Arlington Cemetery on 16 November 1945. The new Quonset Point Chapel was named after him until the Naval Air Station closed down in 1975. A group of local residents, the Friends of the Mount Beacon Eight, make organized pilgrimages each year to the crash site, where the remains of the Expeditor can still be seen.

With his stellar wartime record, Dixie Kiefer could have looked forward to flag rank in the postwar Navy. Certainly his peers, the other carrier captains, did well, many serving in high positions during the Korean War and afterward. His untimely death snipped his career short, and probably contributed to his memory being overshadowed by those who survived and flourished further. But Navy Air and our country still owe him recognition for his service in two wars, his bravery and the example he set. Jovial, easygoing and, yes, maybe a bit overweight, Dixie Kiefer was courageous in flight, resourceful in battle and, above all, loved by his men.

Like so many other unsung heroes, he deserves to be remembered.

A special thanks for this piece to David Rocco, who brought Kiefer’s career to Shipmate. With Don Keith, Rocco recently published The Indestructible Man (Erin Press, 2017), which covers Kiefer’s life far more extensively. Visit the Friends of the Mount Beacon Eight Facebook page for more information. Thanks are also due to Jennifer Bryan, director, Archives Division, and Lenore Hart. Dave Poyer ’71’s latest novel is Deep War (St. Martin’s, December 2018). It and his other novels featuring fictional USNA grad Dan Lenson are available in hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio, and Violent Peace will appear this fall. Visit his Facebook page or his website at www.poyer.com.

Source: Shipmate: June 2019