Ontario-based veteran Welby (Ike) Isaacs was awarded the first USS Arizona Medal of Freedom on Thursday in Hamilton.
The city is home to the lab that rolled steel from the USS Arizona, one of the Pearl Harbor battleships that sank during the 1941 attack, helping to create the medals for a U.S. foundation.
“It means a lot because … we live in a country that’s free,” Isaacs, a Cayuga man and the oldest living Indigenous veteran in Six Nations of the Grand River, told CBC Hamilton.
Isaacs was given the medal for his service to Canada and as a way to honour the six Canadian crew members who served on the USS Arizona.
Isaacs said he joined the armed forces in 1959, going to the Canadian Forces Base in Borden, Ont., to train before moving on to The Royal Canadian Dragoons regiment in Petawawa. He was then sent to Germany to serve as a radio operator in a tank and other vehicles.
At the height of his seven-year career, which included time in Egypt, Isaacs was a lance corporal before being honourably discharged in 1966.
Freedom medals made to honour veterans
While Isaacs received the first medal, more are being made, said Edward McGrath, executive director of the Lauren F. Bruner USS Arizona Memorial Foundation.
Bruner, one of the last surviving crew members of the Arizona until his death in 2019, established the non-profit to honour those aboard the ship the morning of the Japanese attack on U.S. military installations in Hawaii.
The U.S. navy gave Bruner, and all other Arizona survivors, steel from the ship, which had been sitting in a salvage field nearly all this time. Before he died, Bruner left his pieces of steel to the foundation, which was used to create the medals.
The medals were made at CanmetMATERIALS, a Natural Resources Canada lab in Hamilton. The lab, which hosted the ceremony Thursday, is unique in North America — one of the few places that could roll the steel ingots down to sheets, from which the medals were laser cut.
Garry Sault, an Ojibway elder and U.S. navy veteran from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, offered an opening prayer Thursday morning, blessing USS Arizona relics and the USS Medal of Freedom before singing a warrior song.
Lt.-Cmdr. Catherinanne George, a Royal Canadian Navy chaplain, also gave a blessing.
It was an emotional day for Pat Oakes, an elder from the Mohawk Nation in Akwesasne near Cornwall, Ont.
Her father, Alex Tehotkonnion Oakes, was among the Indigenous veterans being posthumously honoured. He was a Mohawk code talker and the U.S. Congress awarded him a congressional silver medal for his service.
“The example of seeing my parents serve in war gave me perspective on what is possible and showed my generation we can work … to fulfil life’s purpose,” Pat said, before getting teary eyed talking about her father, who died in 2008.
Isaacs also had kind words for Pat’s father.
“If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t even be here and that’s a fact.”
McGrath said the medals will honour people who made a difference and help preserve history.
The foundation will now be selling medals for $1,000 US each.
Proceeds of sales, as a tax-deductible donation, will help fund an educational program and interactive app for high school history students in Canada and the United States, McGrath said.
“If you remember history, you’ll remember and learn it repeats itself if you blink your eye and we don’t want that to happen.”