During Native American Heritage Month, today’s #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Louis Levi Oakes, a Code Talker during World War II.
Louis Levi Oakes was from St. Regis, Quebec, on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. He quit school early in his life and went to work in a steel plant in Buffalo, New York. At age 18, he crossed the border into the U.S. to enlist in the Army. He later stated that he didn’t want to go into the Canadian army based on how they treated First Nations people like his brother.
“When I was in Canada, the Mounties were bad. Really bad,” Oakes said in an interview for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. “They broke up [my brother’s] face and everything [for not reporting in for military service].”
Oakes did basic training at Pine Camp (now Fort Drum) in New York before transferring to a base in Louisiana. While in Louisiana, the officers learned Oakes could speak Mohawk and set him up as a Code Talker. Oakes joined the 442nd Signal Battalion as part of Company B and worked with 16 other Mohawk Code Talkers.
He first deployed in western New Guinea and then to the Philippines. While deployed, he worked in a radio unit, where he relayed orders and coordinated troop movements with other Code Talkers. In a 2019 article for Head News Canada, Oakes described having to use a compass to navigate in the jungle while he carried his field pack with telephone lines. Sometimes, he also had bodyguards watching over him to protect him from Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains.
After Japan surrendered in August 1945, Oakes served occupational duty for four months. He honorably discharged as a technician fourth grade in February 1946.
After the war, Oakes remained in the U.S. where he worked as an ironworker in Buffalo, building bridges and skyscrapers. He later returned to his hometown of St. Regis and worked for the Akwesasne roads department.
He married Annabelle Mitchelle in 1950 and they had 10 children. Oakes did not talk about his service until 2014.
“He finally started talking about it. He said he was threatened not to say anything,” his daughter Dora Oakes said. “As kids growing up, we’d watch movies and he’d just say, ‘I was there,’ but he would never go into it.”
In 2016, Oakes received a Silver Star and a Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Code Talker. Oakes was the last living Mohawk Code Talker of World War II.
“There’s a lot of focus on truth and reconciliation right now,” said Canadian Liberal Military Police Marc Miller in a 2019 Guardian article of the country’s attempts to reckon – and atone for – past injustices towards indigenous peoples. “But we really need to focus on the first word: truth. And really learn the truth about those who sacrificed so much in service to us. Levi Oakes was a hero.’”
Oakes passed away in May 2019 at the age of 94.
We honor his service.
Do you want to light up the face of a special Veteran? Have you been wondering how to tell your Veteran they are special to you? VA’s #VeteranOfTheDay social media feature is an opportunity to highlight your Veteran and his/her service.
It’s easy to nominate a Veteran. Visit our blog post about nominating to learn how to create the best submission.
Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Writer: Sarah Concepcion
Editors: Annabelle Colton, Wilson S. Sainvil
Fact checker: Giacomo Ferrari
Graphic artist: Kiki Kelley