ROCHESTER N.Y. – Native American Night has become a staple of the Rochester Nighthawks’ schedule.
Each season fans can learn about the roots of the Creator’s Game, see beautiful dancing and listen to Native American music on the designated night. This year, however, the Knighthawks honour a local hero to usher in the festivities.
On Saturday, Jan. 7, the Knighthawks recognize 92-year-old Louis Levi Oakes, who is the last surviving WWII Akwesasne Mohawk Code Talker. Seventy years after serving in the United States Army, Oakes and his fellow Akwesasne Mohawk Code Talkers are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
“To know our grandfather played a role in a significant part of history makes him a hero in our eyes,” said Teresa Oakes.
Levi was a technician with the 4th Grade, Company B, 442nd Signal Battalion, United States Army. He enlisted as as a code talker and served more than two and a half years in the Pacific Theater as the United States and the Allies liberated islands and territories held by Japanese forces. Sending messages in their Mohawk language confused the Japanese, who could not break the code. With free lines of communication, their contributions played a major role in the eventual Allied victory.
It was during the Philippines Campaign that the United States scored major victories at Leyte Gulf, Luzon, and Mindoro. The ceremonial retaking of the Philippines was captured in a famous photograph of General Douglas MacArthur and President Sergio Osmeña wading ashore at Palo, Leyte on October 20, 1944. The victories paved the way for the capitulation of the Japanese on September 2, 1945, officially ending World War II.
In the midst of the struggle against determined Japanese resistance was Oakes, who was often behind enemy lines communicating messages to American troops. His story and those of his fellow code talkers are finally coming to light and they are being recognized for their gallantry.
“Thank you so very much for our code talkers, who didn’t listen and continued to speak their language. Without them, we might not be sitting here today,” said St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance Jr. “It’s about time that our elders and families can be recognized for the valiant efforts they made to secure the peace, not only in our country and in Akwesasne, but throughout the world.”
In 2008, Congress passed the Code Talkers Recognition Act to honour every Native American code talker who served in the United States military during WWI or WWII. The Mohawks were among 10 Native communities that produced World War II code talkers.
“For too long this selfless sacrifice went unrecognized by our nation, and sadly, these heroes were instructed not to speak of their important roles in these military campaigns,” said Congresswoman Elise Stefanik (R-Willsboro). “For many, that meant that the families and friends of these code talkers were unaware of the contributions these patriots made to this country.”
Stefanik spoke those emotional words on May 28 at The Travis Solomon Memorial Lacrosse Box in Generations Park in Akwesasne. A packed house of 550 people gathered on Memorial Day Weekend for the presentation of 24 Congressional Medals; the medal is the highest civilian award that can be bestowed on an individual by the U.S. Congress. Levi Oakes, who was seated in the front row, was awarded a silver medal for his service.
“It was great to see a lot of people here,” Oakes told Akwesasne TV. “I feel good about what they are doing for me.”
“He was really happy and honoured. He said it was about time — 70 years later,” added Levi’s daughter Dora. “We all enjoyed it; we have quite a big family. I think we took up almost the whole arena. There were over a hundred of us.”
The humble Oakes admitted, with a bit of humour, that he could not remember how many messages he transmitted from the dense forests and rugged terrain of New Guinea and the Philippines.
“If I can’t talk it out, I’ll give them a smoke signal,” he said with a chuckle. “We talked about field wires in the jungles. They would give you a piece of paper to read that told you what you were to say.”
His service was obviously more important than Oakes alluded to when asked the question at the Congressional Medal ceremony. Throughout the past 70 years, he kept his missions a secret and always gave a cryptic response to any question about his military service. It was because of the classified nature of his work that Levi’s family was unaware of his exploits until recently.
“He would watch a movie and say he was there and that he was in the Army,” said Dora Oakes. “That is all he said. I tried to ask him questions like ‘How was it?’ and ‘What did you do?’ He said it was top secret and couldn’t tell me. That is what he told all of us.
“Then you come to find out, after they asked him a bunch of questions for the Congressional Medal, that he was a code talker and doing communications in his language. It was pretty neat.”
Since receiving the medal, Oakes has been honoured several times for his service as a code talker. In September, Dora accompanied her father on the 17th Honour Flight trip to Washington. One of the highlights of the trip was the escort they received from more than 80 motorcycles during their hour and a half trip to Plattsburgh. Along with 13 other veterans, nine from World War II and four who served in the Korean War, the group travelled to our nation’s capital to view the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam Veterans monuments, the Air Force Monument, Pentagon and the Changing of the Guard at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I took him to Washington on an honour flight with the WWII veterans from here. We went around to the monuments,” said Dora Oakes. “He was recognized at Salamanca during the Pow Wow and was honoured with an eagle feather. They have asked him to go to the schools because they are pushing the Native languages, and honoured him for what he did.
“It was awesome because I got to take him. I took him to the Veterans Pow Wow and he loved it. (He’s happy because) his kids and grandkids are taking him around now.”
On Jan. 7, once again surrounded by his family, he was recognized in a building in Rochester dedicated to the sacrifices of the men and women of armed forces. Two of his grandsons, Warren and Ryan Jr., along with Dora, escorted him out onto the turf for the pregame ceremony. Veterans Outreach Center Executive Director Todd Baxter had the honour of welcoming Levi Oakes to The Blue Cross Arena at the Rochester War Memorial.
“The importance of people like Mr. Oakes and the Akwesasne Mohawk Code Talkers of World War II, who used the Mohawk Language to help Allied Forces achieve success, are not celebrated enough,” said Baxter. “This tribute by the Knighthawks shows a small portion of the respect owed, and provides an opportunity for us all to reflect on those who served with distinction. The Veterans Outreach Center is proud to be a part of this night to show our admiration for the service of the Code Talkers.”