Last seen punching with one hand & his trench knife in the other. They found his body surrounded by 40 dead Koreans,

Photo of Heartbreak Ridge via US Army Public Domain
Photo of Heartbreak Ridge

At approximately 10:00 pm, two battalions from the North Korean 13th Infantry Regiment attacked in full force. Combined with a massive barrage of North Korean artillery, Pilila’au’s platoon began to pay a heavy price for their advanced position and were given permission to rejoin the main body.

However, retreating across a rice paddy riddled with enemy fire was no small feat. For the platoon to pull back, one squad would have to remain in place to cover the retreating soldiers. Successfully covering the retreat while taking their own casualties, eventually only Pilila’au and his squad leader remained.

The Americans began to call in close artillery support to cover Pilia’au’s withdrawal, but the strikes came in so close to Pilia’au they were worried about inadvertently striking their own man. Meanwhile, Pilia’au was giving the North Koreas everything he had.

Firing his BAR with deadly precision he held off the North Koreans until his ammunition was completely expended. It was at this point that he turned to his supply of grenades. Hurling them one after the other, he continued to hold off the enemy and inflict a heavy toll.

It was at this point that his supply of grenades ran out and he did what any resourceful soldier would do. He started picking up the rocks around him and began hurling them as projectiles. And whether he ran out of suitable rocks or perhaps had just had enough, Pilila’au would embark one more mission during his gallant last stand.

Swinging Until the End

Exhausted and out of ammunition, Pilila’au decided to take the fight to the enemy. Grabbing his trench knife, Pilila’au decided to close with and destroy the enemy by hand if he had to. Leaping from his semi-covered position, he charged the attacking North Koreans and began to do his worst upon them.

Punching with one hand and swinging his knife with the other, he began to remind the North Koreans just what kind of fight they had on their hands. However, as the numbers became overwhelming Pilila’au was last seen alive completely surrounded by the enemy and fighting until the bitter end.

USNS Herbert K. Pililaau via Public Domain
USNS Herbert K. Pililaau

The next morning, the rest of Company C was able to retake the strategic position, and there they found their fallen comrade with knife in hand. But as well as Pilila’au, they found over 40 dead North Korean soldiers at his feet. For his actions that day, Herbert K. Pilila’au was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and a hallowed place in Military History.

He would become the first Hawaiian to receive the Medal of Honor, and in January of 2000, the United States Navy would christen the USNS Pililaau in his honor. Gallantry was on full display through the battle of Heartbreak Ridge but the story simply cannot be told in full without the contribution of Herbert K. Pilila’au.

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