This Day in History: The quiet guy who earned the Medal of Honor
On this day in 1928, a future Medal of Honor recipient is born in Hawaii. Herbert K. Pililaau never lived to see his home become a state. Instead, when Pililaau was killed in action, Hawaii was still only a United States territory.
Surely no one expected the quiet Hawaiian to one day earn the Medal of Honor? He wasn’t very social, didn’t drink and always seemed to be reading his Bible. He apparently considered refusing the draft because of concerns about killing other human beings. In the end, though, he decided to serve.
In September 1951, he was in Korea with the 23rd Infantry Regiment. United States forces had just helped to win the Battle of Bloody Ridge, but now they were trying to win another position from the North Koreans.
Pililaau wouldn’t survive the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.
His company was trying to hold a key position on that ridge, but the enemy was coming at the Americans repeatedly. The North Koreans had more ammunition than the Americans did, and the firing was intense. Finally, Americans were ordered into retreat.
Pililaau volunteered to cover the withdrawal. Reading the accounts of Pililaau’s final minutes is a little like reading a transcript for a Hollywood movie! He was being rushed by the enemy, but he held them off with his automatic weapon. When he ran out of ammunition, he began throwing grenades. Finally, he was out of grenades, too. Undeterred, he pulled out a knife and, as his Medal citation describes, “closed with the foe in hand-to-hand combat, courageously fighting with his trench knife and bare fists until finally overcome and mortally wounded.”
Some of the other Americans could see what was going on from a distance. Pililaau’s squad leader later remembered his amazement at what he was witnessing:
“There was Herb standing up, fighting a lot of the enemy. It was hand-to-hand and just Herb against all of them. We all wanted to go back up to help him, but the captain said ‘No.’ We tried to help Herb by firing a few shots, but they didn’t do any good. All of a sudden, they shot him and when he went down they bayoneted him. That was it.”
He’d saved his company, but it had cost him his life. He also rejuvenated his colleagues, who went back to reclaim the ridge that they’d just left. When they found Pililaau’s body, they also discovered 40 dead North Korean soldiers near him. He’d definitely gone down fighting.
All from a man who was mostly known for the time he spent reading a Bible and writing letters home!
American heroes come in all shapes and sizes, don’t they?
Editors of the Boston Publishing Company, The Medal of Honor: A History of Service Above and Beyond (2014)
Edward F. Murphy, Korean War Heroes (1992)
Medal of Honor citation (Herbert K. Pililaau, 6/18/1952)