Charlie Isaac was born November 25, 1912, in Moosehide Village, a short distance downstream of Dawson City.
He was the son of the beloved Chief Isaac and his wife Eliza.
Chief Issac led his people through the upheaval of the Gold Rush and passed away in 1932. Charlie succeeded his father as chief of the Han Nation (Tr’ondek Hwech’in) when he was 20.
When the Second World War began, Charlie handed over his role as chief to a council of elders and headed to Vancouver in 1941 to join the army and fight for his country.
He was accompanied by George Walters.
While stationed at the old Hotel Vancouver barracks in April 1942, and after graduating in motor mechanics at the Vancouver Trade School, Charlie reported he’d met up with a happy crowd of Yukon soldiers enjoying the sunshine in front of the old hotel, including Sapper Charlie Ross, privates George Maddocks, Henry Siemers, Axel Nordling, Ian Aldcroft, Otto Nordling, Alan Gould, and corporals Tommy Rodgers and Dan Olds.
Soon Charlie found himself with an artillery regiment on Vancouver Island and taking a signaling course in Victoria.
“I didn’t like the artillery guns,” he said. “They were pretty big and sure hard on your ear drums. I joined the Royal Canadian Ordnance Corps in 1942 and went back east.”
After training, he was sent overseas and served as an ammunition bearer, seeing a lot of action on fronts throughout Europe. He slept in English cottages, French inns, Dutch cots or Italian vineyards.
“We used to lie down and go to sleep between the rows of grapes in the vineyards,” Charlie said. “All around us would be a cloak of grapes. The Germans used to put poison in the wine vats, which were huge, great things. The Canadians used to test the wine by letting a cat drink it first.”
Charlie’s wartime and other stories were featured in the article Civilization? Take it Away by Stuart Gray in The Vancouver Province, December 20, 1966.
When the war ended in 1945, Charlie returned home to Yukon and carried on as chief, devoting his time to working with government to improve the condition of his people. He had a great sense of humour and, more than once, told government officials the government had stolen the land from his people and he had gone to war to save the land for them.
His 200-member band was moved from Moosehide village so they could be supplied with modern homes, electricity and running water.
However, Charlie preferred to drink mountain creek water and decided to move back to the old village and share the solitude with his older brother Fred.
Charlie’s health eventually deteriorated from an overseas bout with malaria. He also suffered from a serious arthritic condition which was probably caused from lying in one too many muddied battlefield ditches while serving overseas.
The war years eventually took its toll and Charlie moved to George Derby Veterans Centre in Burnaby where he passed away suddenly on February 25, 1975, at the age of 63.
He was laid to rest in cemetery above Dawson City. Charlie was adored by many people in his village and will always be missed by family.
Charlie’s medals include the 39-45 Star, Italy Star, France and German Star, Defense Metal and Volunteer Service Medal and clasp.
Joy Isaac is the niece of Charlie Isaac.