Indigenous

Louis Levi Oakes, last WW II Mohawk code talker, dies at 94

Louis Levi Oakes, the last Mohawk code talker — using the language to encode messages for Allied forces during the Second World War — has died at age 94. 

Louis Levi Oakes used the Mohawk language to encode messages for Allied forces

Louis Levi Oakes, a Mohawk veteran from Akwesasne, was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations for his contributions as an Indigenous code talker during the Second World War. He died Tuesday night at 94. (CPAC)

Louis Levi Oakes, the last Mohawk code talker — using the language to encode messages for Allied forces during the Second World War — died Tuesday at age 94. 

The veteran was one of 17 Mohawks from Akwesasne, which straddles the Quebec, Ontario and New York state borders, who received code-talker training while stationed in Louisiana.

Kanien'kéha, the Mohawk language, was one of 33 Indigenous languages used during the war to send encoded messages between Allied forces so enemies could not understand what was being said. 

At 18, Oakes enlisted in the U.S. army and served for six years as a technician fourth grade with Company B of the 442nd Signal Battalion. He served as a code talker in the South Pacific, New Guinea and the Philippines.

Oakes received an honourable discharge on Feb. 15, 1946. He then worked as an ironworker in Buffalo, N.Y., and later as a highway maintenance worker in his community before retiring.

Recognized by U.S. Congress, AFN, Commons

Oakes didn't talk about his experience as a code talker until about five years ago, said his daughter Dora Oakes.

"He finally started talking about it. He said he was threatened not to say anything," she said.

When he finally opened up, it was a surprise to his family.

"As kids growing up, we'd watch movies and he'd just say, 'I was there,' but he would never go into it," said Dora.

The Code Talkers Recognition Act was signed into law by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008, requiring the secretary of the Treasury to strike Congressional Medals in recognition of the dedication and valour of Indigenous code talkers to the U.S. Armed Services during World War I and World War II.

Oakes enlisted in the U.S. army at age 18. He served for six years, including as a code talker in South Pacific theatres during the Second World War. (Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe)

For his service, in 2016, Oakes was awarded a Silver Star Medal — the third-highest military decoration given in the U.S. for showing gallantry in action against an enemy.

"It was great. I wish they would have did it years before when he could have enjoyed it," said Dora. "But life goes on, and he was finally recognized, and I've been all over the place with him."

His contributions to Allied forces efforts were also recognized by the House of Commons and Assembly of First Nations in December. 

"I only knew Levi for a very short period of time, but he meant a tremendous amount to me," said Marc Miller, parliamentary secretary to Canada's minister of Crown-Indigenous relations. "I can only imagine what he meant to his family and his people who had the privilege of knowing him for far longer.

 "Due to the secrecy of his mission in WW II, the extent of his contributions as a Mohawk code talker have only recently been known and honoured. My hope is that we continue to honour his memory and contributions in death much longer than we did in life."

Oakes's funeral takes place on Saturday in Akwesasne. 

About the Author

Jessica Deer

Journalist

Jessica Deer is Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake. A former staff reporter for the Eastern Door, she works in CBC's Indigenous unit based in Montreal. Email her at jessica.deer@cbc.ca or follow her on Twitter @Kanhehsiio.