Alex, now in his seventies, wore his full veteran’s uniform in France, and to his amazement, was given a wide reception. The women kissed his hands and offered him flowers. The men thanked and praised him. It was Alex’s company and others like it that protected France and saved them. Here, he wasn’t turned away because of his race.Read Autumn Epple's Tehontkonnion: Spirit In Uniform
I chose to write about my grandfather's experience in the Second World War because when it comes to my Mohawk side, he is the first person I think of. He is the man who gave me my Mohawk name, which I recently learned is the same as his mother's, a great honor. Another reason is due to his lack of recognition in post-war America and the way it affected him for many years. Many people are unaware that Indigenous peoples were so actively involved in the war and that they were not acknowledged. My aunt told me his story of the foxhole and the journey through France when I was much older after his passing, and having not being given the chance to get to know him very well, the story is a treasure to me. To know that a man as brave as him is in my bloodline gives me daily strength. It also enforces my pride in being a Mohawk person, as the fights they fought were twice as difficult, and therefore I refuse to be ashamed or forget my heritage. I am overwhelmingly proud of my grandfather and thank the Creator every day that men like him gave us the freedom we have today. He is the star that guides me home and the soft breeze I feel whenever I'm alone or afraid. If my grandfather can find strength in the most difficult of times, then I know I can surely do the same.
It was a mistake to sign up for this. A terrible, terrible mistake. As the sounds of the bombs exploding, the shrapnel flying and the men screaming surrounded him, Alex felt as though his heart was about to burst out of his chest. It was dark, and the only lights were that of the guns and fires around him. The smell of dirt, gunpowder, burning flesh and death were everywhere. If there truly was a hell on earth, he’d found it.
At the tender age of seventeen, Alex Oakes had enlisted to serve his country now was questioning his choice. To begin, his name wasn’t Alexander Herbert, like he’d said. It was ‘Tehontkonnion,’ which meant ‘exhibition’ (the year he was born, the exhibition was happening on the reserve). He’d lied about his age and so did his brother, Tom. You had to be eighteen to join the army. But they managed to get in, and now here he was, running for his life in hopes he wouldn’t have to take another’s to survive. He didn’t like killing because he was so tenderhearted.
The St. Regis Reserve was no place to stay during the war. It consisted of New York State, Ontario and Quebec, and there were Mohawk people fighting on both sides of the border. Thankfully, the government needed all the help they could get, and four of the Oakes boys enlisted. Ross and Arthur, in the Army and Navy, were of age.
Alex believed he was caretaker of the land, as did his brothers. That was why he enlisted. In his eyes, it was the only way to secure peace in the territory. All the talk of ‘For God and Country’ didn’t resonate with any of the Oakes boys. They were fighting for more than that.
Reality broke through his thoughts. In the midst of his running, Alex suddenly fell forward, and to his excitement, he’d found a foxhole. The Creator was with him that night, Alex thought as his slid down, landing on his knees in the muddy dirt. Here he could wait out the storm of bullets and advance when it was safe.
Little did he know someone was already in this foxhole, taking cover as well, and Alex realized this when the light of a nearby fire illuminated him. Alex felt his stomach jump into his throat. The man was wearing the German uniform.
Alex grabbed his gun and pointed it at him, “Stay where you are!”
After what seemed like an eternity, the sun finally broke through the sky, through the blackness of the gunfire and the bombs. The thickness of the air made it less powerful, but easier to see. It was dawn. The little bit of light was just enough to show Alex something he never thought possible. Bright green eyes, a youthful face, and a bone structure that suggested he wasn’t much older than sixteen. This man wasn’t a man at all. He was, like Alex, a child, and this enemy was no different than him.
Their eyes met, and they both emulated fear. Alex saw that the man was wounded and that he now had the advantage. Shaking, the German held up his hands, letting his weapon slide into the mud, the blood soaking his left side almost completely. There was so much of it that Alex could hardly tell where he had been hit.
“Mein….mein frau…” he said, his voice cracking, as though his throat were filled with dust, and Alex watched, still armed, as he reached into his pocket, pulling out a tiny photograph, “Please…mein frau…”
The picture was of a young woman and almost instantly, Alex thought of Irene. His sweetheart, who was waiting for him back at home. Beautiful, dark-haired, sharp-tongued Irene, whom he’d promised the marry the second he was on leave. They would have a house and children when this war was over, he told her. All he could think, when he looked at this small picture, was that this German boy, too, had someone waiting for him back home.
“Amerikaner…” the German seemed to beg him, and Alex felt a lump in his throat, “Please, Amerikaner…”
“I can’t…I can’t understand you, I’m sorry…”
The German grabbed his arm then, blood pouring out of his mouth. Alex did his best not to falter. The picture was shoved into Alex’s hands and the German boy looked him in the eye. In that short time, Alex felt a connection. This German was no monster, no evil pillaging rapist that they’d been told to watch out for. He wasn’t gigantic and covered in nasty scars and blood thirsty. No, he was scared, young, and above all things, human. Within a few moments, the light left his eyes, and he was dead.
Young Alex Oakes knew what it felt like to be considered something he was not. That had been happening to his people for centuries. Traditions forced away, hair cut short to fit into ‘white’ society, and the language they held precious and near, told to be erased. It wasn’t right and it wasn’t fair. After all, everyone bled the same colour. He knew that now more than ever. Why was he so surprised to come face to face with his country’s enemy, and find out he was so very much like him?
Alex gently laid him where he’d found him, realizing then it still was not safe to leave the foxhole. Gently, he tucked the photograph into his pocket, knowing he’d be identified. Now it was time to just wait for safety. Of course, Alex found himself looking back at the young German and wondering why he’d wanted to trust him with this photograph. Maybe somehow he knew that as he lay dying, that Alex might understand.
A few days in the foxhole left Alex with a decision. He would marry Irene, he would be brave and he would do everything he could in this war to protect what was so dear to him. Seeing the life of someone so innocent slip away right before him had changed his view. His friends had been killed right in front of him, and comrades fallen as they ran together. But now the enemy that he was forced to kill had died before him, and he felt a surge in his already passionate heart. There was life after this war. There had to be.
Alex learned how to speak German after that, in addition to his quick Mohawk. The Oakes boys met in a cafe in France, a secret mission only for Mohawk codetalkers. The Germans couldn’t break the Navajo language, nor could they break the Mohawk. How curious the onlookers in France must have been to hear them.
Not long after that, Alex was wounded in battle and sent on leave. He married Irene in February 1943, bride and groom in uniform on their wedding day. Alex returned for D-Day and parachuted onto Juno Beach, and thankfully survived until the end. Irene joined the Women’s Army Corps, building weapons and machinery while she waited for her husband to come home. Never again did he have a close and personal encounter with a German.
When it all ended, Alex Oakes was not hailed as a hero. His five medals meant nothing to society, for he was an Indian and not ‘true American’. He wasn’t allowed to celebrate with the other heroes and would end up drinking alone outside the bar, even in the cold of winter. This rejection, along with the nightmares he suffered, came with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He would tell his war stories to his children, who at the time would weep and be afraid. Their life together was not a happy one due to the trauma he endured during and after the war.
Thankfully, Alex found a job as an ironworker, and he helped to built some of the tallest skyscrapers in America. However his absence left a void between father and children. Irene was unhappy, having to work and take care of the kids while Alex was away, and she died at the young age of 49. Exhausted, depressed, and brokenhearted.
Three of his children followed in their parents’ footsteps and joined the service when they came of age. A son and daughter in the army, and the youngest son in the air force. Despite his pain, Alex was proud of his service for his country and was always excited to don his veteran’s uniform on special occasions, such as Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. To him, it was more than just a fancy coat with shiny medals.
Many years later, Alex’s grandson Nathan, was a security guard for a 4-star US general while in the Marines in France. Once he knew of Alex, the general invited Alex to come to France, expenses paid. Alex’s doctor told him that perhaps it would be a good idea to see France now, free of war. It would ease the pain he was still carrying. France was also where he’d met the young German.
Alex, now in his seventies, wore his full veteran’s uniform in France, and to his amazement, was given a wide reception. The women kissed his hands and offered him flowers. The men thanked and praised him. It was Alex’s company and others like it that protected France and saved them. Here, he wasn’t turned away because of his race. He was treated like he should have been, the once terrified child soldier that fearlessly catapulted into the dark smoky skies of D-Day and helped liberate France. A hero.
When it came time to leave, Alex turned to the general and his grandson.
“I want to leave here just as I did the last time.”
He gave them his medications and his cane, and turned away. His grandson was hesitant, but he knew that it was something he had to do. Just as he did, nearly fifty years before, Alex Oakes marched seven miles through France.
No one except for Alex knows what he thought of during that walk. Perhaps he thought of the German boy that never knew life outside of war. Maybe he thought of the people he’d met or of the friends he lost. Whatever he thought of gave him strength beyond his years, because he walked the entire seven miles, without a single aid.
Alex Oakes was my grandfather. A friend of our family said she saw him standing by the road in his uniform, waving goodbye on the day he passed away. Perhaps even in the Sky World, he is still proud of his service. I wonder if the young German he met is there as well, and maybe somehow, they’ve met again. Only this time, in peace.