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Herbert Pilila’au, wounds inflicted by a bayonet. Around him, more than forty dead Koreans

Sam Dickson

This is a story of Herbert Pilila’au, a first native born Hawaiian who received the Medal of Honor. He fought for his fellow men with everything on hand and laid down his life for them.

Pilila’au was born in 1928, in a working-class family in Hawaii. A talented musician and passionate reader, he had a bright future awaiting him. Alas, in 1950 he was drafted into the Army and his short life was to take an unexpected turn.

Pfc. Herbert Kaili Pililaau. Source

Pfc. Herbert Kaili Pililaau. Source

After completing the basic training at Fort Shafter, he was sent to Korea in March 1951. He served as a Private First Class rifleman with Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division.

His weapon of choice was a Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR.  After successfully conquering a ridge in east-central Korea, his regiment’s next mission was to capture a nearby hill.

The hill, subsequently named the Heartbreak Ridge, was swamped with enemy Korean People’s Army. Their immediate objective was one of its two peaks.

After the initial advancement stalled, Pilila’au’s platoon was tasked with setting up a defense perimeter ahead of the rest of the company. In mid-afternoon, they came under attack. But, their mortars, artillery, and heavy machine gun support originally fend off the Koreans.

The 2nd Infantry Division north of the Chongchon River, Nov. 20, 1950. Source

The 2nd Infantry Division north of the Chongchon River, Nov. 20, 1950. Source

When the night fell, two Korean battalions simultaneously charged on them. Pilila’au’s platoon soon caught itself in the crossfire and got permission to withdraw, but his very own squad needed to stay just a bit longer, covering his retreating comrades. One by one, only Pilila’au and his squad leader remained on their position. They attempted to retreat, but their options got worse by the second.

Depleted of his BAR ammunition, Pvt Pilila’au switched to hand grenades. After those were gone, he started throwing rocks at the enemy. As the attackers were getting closer, he pulled out his trench knife and charged. Minutes later, 22-years-old Hawaiian was gone.

The next day, his platoon managed to reconquer that position. The sight sent chills down their spines. Herbert Pilila’au was dead, in a pool of blood with wounds inflicted by a bayonet. Around him, more than forty dead Koreans.

Pililaau Army Recreation Center at Pokai Bay in Hawaii. Source

Pililaau Army Recreation Center at Pokai Bay in Hawaii. Source

On June 18, 1952, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. This brave soldier remains remembered and honored. In 2000, a US Navy cargo ship is named after him, as well as several military facilities, and a park in his hometown Wai’anae.