It’s September 17, 1951. The Korean War has been raging for 15 months and the fighting on Hill 931 in North Korea is bitter and deadly. Private First Class Herbert K. Pililaau’s platoon has retreated down the slopes of the hill in the face of determined North Korean opposition. Could Pililaau hold off the enemy long enough to allow his buddies to escape?
Herbert Kailieha Pililaau was born in October 1928 in Honolulu, Hawaii. His parents lived in a working class district of Wai?anae on the edge of the city. His father William Kaluhi Pililaau and his mother Abigail Keolalani Kailieha were both born and bred Hawaiians.
Pililaau was the ninth of his parents’ nine boys and five girls. Growing up, he showed an aptitude for music and was an accomplished singer as well as a skilled ukulele player. He was also an ardent reader, something that no doubt helped him in his successful 1948 graduation from Waipahu High School.
After graduating, Pililaau continued his studies at the Cannon Business School where he took courses in accounting and administration. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, along came the draft and Pililaau’s name duly came up.
Because of his strongly held Christian beliefs and his resulting doubts about killing his fellow humans in breach of the sixth commandment, Pililaau actually considered taking the path of conscientious objection. But duty to his country won the day and he reported for service, doing his basic training at the Fort Shafter military base in Honolulu.
March 1951 now came round and Pililaau was posted to Korea as a private first class attached to the 2nd Infantry Division’s 23rd Regiment. Serving with the regiment’s Company C, he volunteered to be his platoon’s automatic rifleman. To this end, he was issued with a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).
The BAR of the Korean War era was a formidable weapon that could fire up to 650 rounds per minute. It had a magazine with a capacity of 20 rounds and its .30 caliber bullets were capable of meting out devastating damage. As we’ll see, the weapon was to be tested to its utmost in Pililaau’s capable hands.
Pililaau first saw action in Korea at the Battle of Bloody Ridge in August 1951. This engagement, with the Korean People’s Army on one side and U.N. forces made up of troops from the Republic of Korea and U.S. armies on the other, rumbled on from August 18 to September 5, 1951. It was fought in the mountain ranges of central Korea, not far north of the 38th Parallel, the line that divided the two Koreas.
South Korean troops had started the battle at a time when peace negotiations were actually under way. The Korean battlefields had largely reached a position of impasse between the opposing forces, but harsh combat continued on the ground. The South Koreans took the hill crest that became known as Bloody Ridge, but were soon pushed back by a North Korean counter attack.
The fight to retake the hill dragged on for ten days with repeated attacks by the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division’s 9th Regiment as well as Pililaau’s regiment, the 23rd. The battle was fought on a miserable quagmire as torrential rains lashed the hillside, and both sides sustained heavy casualties.
Eventually a combination of infantry assaults, and a constant barrage of ordnance from tanks and air planes dislodged the North Koreans from their position on the ridge. At one point, in excess of 14,000 artillery rounds were fired on the North Korean positions in just 24 hours. Outflanked and in danger of being cut off, the North Koreans retreated.
But the North Koreans didn’t retreat far. In fact, they took up a new hilltop position just 1,500 yards away from Bloody Ridge. This new location would soon be known as Heartbreak Ridge, and its seven miles would be the scene of yet another grinding and attritional battle. And the North Koreans were even more effectively dug in than they had been on Bloody Ridge.
The 2nd Division’s three infantry regiments and a French battalion now attacked Heartbreak Ridge, with the French, the 9th Regiment and Pililaau’s 23rd Regiment involved in the fiercest of the fighting. The assault on the ridge commenced on September 9, 1951, and the tactics employed by 2nd Division’s commander, General Thomas de Shazo, were questionable to say the least.
After an initial heavy bombardment, the American and French infantry fought their way up the treacherous slopes of Heartbreak Ridge. Eventually those that were not killed or wounded reached the summit, physically spent and with perilously little ammunition remaining. There they were met by North Korean troops, many of whom had only recently arrived at the hill. They drove the Americans and French back off the ridge, a scenario that was repeated time and again.
The fighting at the summit of the ridge often involved hand-to-hand combat of the most vicious kind, with grenades, trench knives and even fists the weapons of choice. And it was in this context on September 17, 1951, that Pililaau and his platoon found themselves on a mission to take one of Heartbreak Ridge’s prominent features, Hill 931.
The American assault came to a halt on a ridge below the peak of Hill 931 and Pililaau’s platoon, somewhat in advance of the rest of the company, established a defensive line. During the afternoon North Korean soldiers made a few exploratory attacks on this position, which the Americans were able to repel with the help of artillery.
But things took a turn for the worse at about 10:00 p.m. that evening when the North Koreans made a determined assault on Pililaau’s unit with a strong force comprising two battalions. The platoon also came under fire from North Korean artillery and with little ammunition left, the decision was made to retreat.
Pililaau’s squad was tasked with mounting a rearguard action to cover the unit’s retreat. The last man in the rearguard, Pililaau fought on until his BAR ran out of ammo. He then threw grenades at the enemy, followed by a fusillade of rocks. Finally, he fought the enemy with his trench knife and bare fists until he was overwhelmed and killed.
The next day, Pililaau’s platoon reclaimed the abandoned position. There they found the body of their fallen comrade, surrounded by the lifeless corpses of more than 40 North Koreans. Pililaau’s actions had allowed his comrades to escape. But his outstanding bravery had cost him his life.
Herbert Pililaau’s courageous stand was recognized with the award of the American military’s top decoration for bravery, the Medal of Honor. He was the first Hawaiian to earn this highest of accolades. The soldier had been just 22 years old when he selflessly sacrificed his own life to save those of others. As his Medal of Honor citation put it, “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.”