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


Often in war it is difficult to the measure the impact of one man, but when that man is making his last stand on Heartbreak Ridge the impact becomes clear.

The first couple of years of the Korean War can easily be described as a seesaw strategic battle for control of the peninsula. However, the same was very much true at the tactical level where control for every field, hill, and ridge would often see a back and forth game of attack and counter-attack. Often changing hands multiple times in one evening, these strategic points became the center of intense fighting.

For Herbert K. Pililaau, this would result in him being the last man standing on hill 931 of Heartbreak Ridge as he covered the retreat for the rest of his squad. He fired his Browning Automatic Rifle until he ran out of bullets. He then threw grenades until his supply was exhausted.

Moving to rocks, he hurled them as projectiles until there were none within reach. It was at this point he pulled out his trench knife and led a one-man charge. Punching with one hand and swinging his knife with the other was how the members of his squad report last seeing him.

And when his platoon retook the position the next day they found Pilila’au fallen, but surrounded by 40 dead North Korean Soldiers. For his exceptional bravery that day, Herbert K. Pilila’au was awarded the Medal of Honor and the admiration of every soldier he saved on Heartbreak Ridge.

From Paradise to War

Herbert K. Pilila’au was born a native Hawaiian in Honolulu in 1928. Just a teen when the Japanese attacked in 1941, he was unable to contribute to the war effort in World War 2. Growing up, he demonstrated a unique musical ability as he sang and played the ukulele for any who would listen.

After graduating High School in 1948, he studied accounting at Cannon Business School until war came calling again. Shortly after war broke out in North Korea, he was drafted into the army. He initially considered declaring conscientious objector status due to this Christian beliefs, but eventually relented and threw himself into the fight.

By March of 1951, he was sent to Korea to serve with Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. It wouldn’t take long for him to see action as he was thrust into combat at the vicious fight known as the Battle of Bloody Ridge. However, it would be a different ridge that would earn him this hallowed place in military history, and for the men of Company C, there is no one else they would want in the fight with them than the once conscientious objector.

Soldiers crossing the 38th parallel via Public Domain
Soldiers crossing the 38th parallel.

The Battle of Heartbreak Ridge would take place just a few miles north of the 38th parallel and last for over a month. The back and forth engagement would focus on several key hills and strategic locations deemed necessary to control the battlefield.

The after effects of this costly battle would change the way the Americans fought the North Koreans, but for Pilila’au, he was destined for greatness on a hill simply indicated by its number, 931.

Battle for Heartbreak Ridge

By the morning of September 17th, 1951, the battle to take Hill 931 from the North Koreans was joined. Fighting throughout the day to dislodge the enemy from the strategic position, Company C finally succeeded by early afternoon. However, victory was rarely celebrated for long in the Korean War as the American soldiers knew the counter-attack was inevitable.

Pilila’au and the rest of his platoon were instructed to set up a defensive perimeter ahead of the platoon to detect and repel such an attack. Throughout the afternoon, the North Koreans conducted a series of probing attacks to assess for weaknesses in the American lines. As night began to fall, the Americans dug in for a long for what was sure to be a long night.

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