Hawaiian native Herbert K. Pilila’au was from O’ahu and has a calm and gentle demeanor. He spent much of his childhood listening to classical music and reading his Bible. When he was 22, he was drafted into the Korean War.
A Fighting Force
Basic training for Pilila’au was spent at Fort Shafter. The other soldiers were amazed at how the quietest among them was the strongest of them all. He was quite humble for constantly being talked about and wrote home religiously.
After finishing basic training, he was shipped out to Gangwon Province, Korea, with the Charlie Company of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. When he volunteered to be the automatic rifleman for the squad, he said, “someone had to do it.”
He fought well alongside his peers in the Battle of Bloody Ridge. The August 1951 battle was victorious, and the troops went on to the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.
On September 17th, 1951, the platoon was charged with protecting Hill 931. North Korean artillery strikes were trained on their location. It was so intense that the platoon had no other choice but to retreat.
Protecting His Platoon
The platoon retreated and met back up with the rest of their unit. But the North Korean’s followed. Pfc. Herbert K. Pilila’au voluntarily covered the platoon’s retreat with a Browning Automatic Rifle.
He fired upon the North Koreans right up until he was out of bullets, then he moved on to throwing all the grenades in his possession at them. Even after all of his bullets and grenades were gone, he did not give up.
He used a trench knife to fight off advancing North Koreans in one hand while punching them with the other. He kept fighting until his unit was safe.
But he could not fight the North Koreans off forever. Eventually, he was killed by a bayonet. His platoon returned the following day and found Pilila’au’s body in the middle of 40 dead North Koreans.
His body was sent back to Honolulu, where he was buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Pfc. Herbert K. Pilila’au was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor on June 18th, 1952. He was the first Native Hawaiian to be awarded the honor.