Herbert K. Pilila’au – Patriot of the Week

Herbert Kailieha Pililaʻau (October 10, 1928 – September 17, 1951) was a United States Army soldier and a recipient of the United States military’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, for his actions in the Korean War. A Native Hawaiian who was born and raised on the island of Oʻahu, he was drafted into the military as a young man. Sent to Korea in early 1951, he participated as an automatic rifleman in the Battle of Bloody Ridge. During the subsequent Battle of Heartbreak Ridge, he voluntarily stayed behind to cover his unit’s withdrawal in the face of an intense attack by North Korean forces. Alone, he held off the assault using his automatic rifle and hand grenades and, after exhausting all available ammunition, engaged the attackers in hand to hand combat until being overrun and killed. For these actions, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

Aged 22 at his death, Pililaʻau was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu on February 26, 1952. For his actions on Heartbreak Ridge, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor later that year, on June 18. He was the first Hawaiian to receive the Medal of Honor.

In January 2000 in New Orleans, the United States Navy christened a Military Sealift Command cargo ship, the USNS Pililaau (T-AKR-304), in his honor. Thirty-one members of his extended family were given a tour of the ship on December 10, 2003, when it made its first docking in Hawaii. Also named for Pililaau are a live-fire range at Makua Military Reservation, a park in his hometown of Wai’anae, and the Pililaau Army Recreation Center.

Pililaʻau’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:

Pfc. Pililaau, a member of Company C, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. The enemy sent wave after wave of fanatical troops against his platoon which held a key terrain feature on “Heartbreak Ridge.” Valiantly defending its position, the unit repulsed each attack until ammunition became practically exhausted and it was ordered to withdraw to a new position. Voluntarily remaining behind to cover the withdrawal, Pfc. Pililaau fired his automatic weapon into the ranks of the assailants, threw all his grenades and, with ammunition exhausted, closed with the foe in hand-to-hand combat, courageously fighting with his trench knife and bare fists until finally overcome and mortally wounded. When the position was subsequently retaken, more than 40 enemy dead were counted in the area he had so valiantly defended. His heroic devotion to duty, indomitable fighting spirit, and gallant self-sacrifice reflect the highest credit upon himself, the infantry, and the U.S. Army.

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