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Jan 9, 2017

By Craig Rybczynski -- There was a lot of emotion at The Blue Cross Arena before Saturday’s Rochester Knighthawks game. With both teams on their benches and the fans on their feet, the United States Army veteran slowly walked his way to midfield with the assistance of three of his grandkids.

Veterans Outreach Center Executive Director Todd Baxter then proceeded to describe the acts of heroism performed by the man in the Native American Army hat and Knighthawks jersey, thousands of miles away, so many decades ago.

“This celebration should have taken place 70 years ago; unfortunately it didn’t,” said Baxter. “There is no better time to do it than today to recognize those who gave so much during World War II. Using his native tongue, they helped defeat our enemies back during World War II by allowing us to communicate between our ships and our armed forces. These men sacrificed their lives … it’s time we honor them.”

Oakes Baxter.jpgAfter completing his speech, Baxter, an Army veteran, stood at attention and saluted the hero. There, with emotion in his eyes, 92-year-old Louis Levi Oakes lifted his right arm and returned the gesture. The crowd of 6,200 fans responded with thundering applause for the last surviving WWII Akwesasne Mohawk Code Talker, who was flanked by his grandkids, Warren, Ryan Jr. and Ronin Oakes.

The Knighthawks honored Levi Oakes on Native American Night for his service as a technician with the 4th Grade, Company B, 442nd Signal Battalion, United States Army. He served as a code talker for over two and a half years in the Pacific Theater, sending coded messages to Allied troops in places like the Philippines and New Guinea. The Mohawks were among 10 Native communities that produced World War II code talkers.

Saturday was a history lesson for many of those in attendance, who were hearing the heroic story of the code talkers for the first time.

“It helped to educate some of our younger fans. Even myself, I didn’t know a heck of a lot about it,” said Knighthawks season ticket holder Ed DiPonzio. “Now I know more. It was a great idea. It was well-received by the fan base. I think there was a great deal of respect when Todd Baxter spoke. The arena went dead silent; that’s not easy to do.”

For DiPonzio, seeing the ceremony had special significance, as his father-in-law, Jack Foi, served in the United States Army during WWII.

“The group that I was with, we thought a lot about that,” he said. “The history around World War II and the position that those gentlemen held and what they did to break down those communications barriers to our advantage. It was wonderful to recognize him.

“I think it was a great link to what he did, lacrosse and the ethnicity to the Native Americans. It worked together really well.”

Having the opportunity to witness the on-field presentation and meet Oakes welled up a lot of emotion in Knighthawks season ticket holder and United States Air Force vet Tim Knab.

“It was really amazing,” he said. “I searched him out because I wanted to properly honor a Congressional Silver Medal recipient.”

Once Knab located Levi in his suite, he greeted him by snapping to attention and giving him a salute. “Knabber” made sure to capture the encounter by kneeing alongside Oakes and posing for a photo.

“It was great to see a smile come across his face,” said Knab. “It was pretty impressive. You don’t get to meet heroes like that very often.”

Knab has been a season ticket holder since the team’s first season in 1995. He and his wife, Jennifer, attended their first game together in 2002. But lacrosse is only one of their shared passions. Serving their country is another. Jenn, like Tim, also served in the U.S. Air Force. Jenn was humbled by meeting Oakes in the hallway of The Blue Cross Arena.

“Here we are living in these times and there’s a gentleman who lived in a time when the United States treated the Native Americans poorly,” she said. “His love for this country and his passion overrode any ill feelings he may have had in his heart; he helped us in a time when we needed it. No other country could break those codes. He’s a hero in every sense of the word.”

Jake Kersbergen, who has been a season ticket holder for six seasons, watched from his seats in section 108 as Levi Oakes finally received the recognition for his heroic efforts 70 years after serving our country. Only in the last decade have the stories emerged about the code talkers and their dangerous missions behind enemy lines in the European and Pacific Theaters.

“I was pretty emotional as well. I have immense gratitude for anyone who has served and protected our rights and our freedoms,” said Kersbergen. “When I see people like Levi Oakes, it does bring a tear to my eye because I know what I would not have if these people didn’t fight.

“When (Todd Baxter) said it was 70 years in the making, it sure was. He should have been recognized a long time ago. It is really something the public should know about.”

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