Canadian Second World War veteran Levi Oakes, who was the last survivor of the men identified as Mohawk Code Talkers, has died.
He was 94 and died at home with his family at his side, his daughter Dora said.
Though born in Canada, Mr. Oakes had enlisted in the U.S. military. He became a Code Talker, one of the indigenous servicemen who used their native languages to stymie the enemy’s attempts to eavesdrop on their units’ communications.
He was one of 17 Mohawks recognized under the Code Talkers Recognition Act of 2008, an American law that granted Congressional Medals to First Nations and individuals who participated in those programs.
“He bravely served in the Second World War ... Thank you for your loving grace and service to our people,” Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a Tweet.
"These were immense contribution by indigenous people to the war effort,” Liberal MP Marc Miller, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said.
“We’ve lost a hero. We’ve lost someone who selflessly served.”
Mr. Bellegard and Mr. Miller were among the people who in recent years paid tribute to Mr. Oakes. Two years ago he received the Congressional Silver Medal. Last December, he was introduced in the House of Commons, met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and was honoured at a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations.
After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1946, following service in the Pacific, Mr. Oakes returned home to the Akwesasne Mohawk nation and shared little about his wartime experience with his family.
Then, six years ago, he finally revealed what he had done in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines. He was a Code Talker, one of the indigenous servicemen who used their native languages to stymie the enemy’s attempts to eavesdrop on their units’ communications.
He had been sworn to secrecy so he kept it confidential for seven decades. “It was top secret,” he told his children.
Louis Levi Oakes was born on Jan. 23, 1925, on the Canadian side of Akwesasne, the Mohawk reserve that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York State. He was the second of the five children of Angus Oakes and Mary Porke.
He left school early and, since many Akwesasne Mohawks move freely across the U.S.-Canada border, he went to work in a steel plant in Buffalo, N.Y.
In an interview with the U.S. Congress' Veterans History Project, Mr. Oakes recalled that after the war started, he never considered serving with the Canadian army. He said that was because one of his brothers had been handcuffed and roughed up by Canadian police for failing to report for military induction.
Instead, shortly after Mr. Oakes turned 19, in January 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. military. "I didn't mind it, I was young," he said.
He took basic training at Pine Camp, now Fort Drum, in upper state New York, then trained in Louisiana.
"They found out I was a Mohawk," he recalled. "The top commander gave me a piece of paper I had to translate to Mohawk."
That steered him towards the signal branch and a Code Talker position so that, before he boarded a troop transport in San Francisco, he took the secrecy oath that he would heed for seven decades.
He was assigned to the 442d Signal Heavy Construction Battalion and was first deployed in Western New Guinea, then to Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines.
He described having to use a compass to navigate in the jungle, while he carried his field pack with telephone lines. Sometimes, he had bodyguards watching over him to protect him from Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains.
His brother Sam also served in the Pacific. After exchanging letters, he realized they were once posted only a few kilometres apart.
Mr. Oakes didn’t share much about his military experience with his family. One observation he made, which he also told Mr. Miller, was his bemusement at hearing the hero in a war movie instructing his men to wait until they could see the white of their enemies’ eyes before shooting.
In his experience, he said, just the sound of a snapped twig would have been enough to unleash gunfire.
Following Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Mr. Oakes spent four winter months there with the occupation forces. Eventually, his unit was disbanded, he was sent back to the Philippines before shipping back to the U.S.
Back home, he married Annabelle Mitchelle and they raised seven boys and three daughters.
Like many other Mohawk men, he became an ironworker, commuting to construction sites across the continent to erect the metal skeletons of bridges and skyscrapers. He said he worked on bridges in Buffalo and New York City.
His daughter Dora said he later remained in Akwesasne, operating heavy equipment on road-construction projects.
Mr. Oakes was predeceased by his wife, Ms. Mitchell, and three of his sons, Gatlin, Lawrence and Charles. He is survived by his children Diane, Louis, Raymond, Wally, Dora, Debbie and Joseph.