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First Name: Herbert

Last Name: Pililaau

Birthplace: Wai'anae, HI, USA

Gender: Male

Branch: Army (1784 - present)

Home of Record: Honolulu, HI
Middle Name: Kaili

Date of Birth: 10 October 1928

Date of Death: 17 September 1951

Rank: Private First Class

Years Served:
Herbert Kaili Pililaau

•  Korean War (1950 - 1953)


Herbert Kaili Pililaau
Private First Class, U.S. Army
Medal of Honor Recipient
Korean War

Herbert Kaili Pililaau was born on 10 October 1928, in Wai'anae, a working-class suburb of Honolulu in what was then the Territory of Hawaii. He was the ninth of fourteen children; eight brothers and five sisters. His parents were both Native Hawaiians and his mother, Abigail; spoke no English, only Hawaiian. Pililaau was a talented singer and ukulele player and an avid reader. After graduating from Waipahu High School in 1948, he studied administration, secretarial work, and accounting at Cannon Business School.

Military Service

Drafted into the Army, he attended basic training at Fort Shafter. He briefly considered declaring himself a conscientious objector, as his Christian faith made him unsure of killing others, but decided against this idea. He was sent to Korea in March 1951 and served as a Private First Class with Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Volunteering to be his squad's automatic rifleman, Pililaau carried a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). In August he participated in the Battle of Bloody Ridge, in which the 2nd Infantry Division attacked and captured a ridge in east central Korea. Their next objective was a hill mass just to the north, near Pia-ri, which would come to be known as Heartbreak Ridge.

On 17 September 1951, Company C and two other companies were tasked with capturing Hill 931, one of Heartbreak Ridge's two identifiable peaks, from North Korean forces. When Company C's attack stalled on a ridgeline which ran south from the main peak, Pililaau's platoon set up a defensive perimeter ahead of the rest of the company. With the help of artillery, mortar, and heavy machine gun support, the platoon easily held off a series of probing assaults which began in the mid-afternoon. At about 10:00 p.m., two battalions of the 13th Infantry Regiment, 6th Division, Korean People's Army, began a concerted attack on the position. With North Korean artillery striking close by and ammunition running low, the platoon received permission to withdraw and rejoin the main body of the company as quickly as possible. Pililaau's squad was assigned to stay back momentarily and cover the retreat. Eventually, only Pililaau and his squad leader remained at the platoon's original position; when the squad leader left, Pililaau continued to fight off the attack alone. After exhausting the ammunition for his BAR, he began throwing hand grenades until those too were gone. As some of his comrades watched from their new position further down the ridge, Pililaau threw rocks at the attackers before charging at them, wielding his trench knife with one hand and punching with the other. He was soon surrounded and killed by bayonet. When his platoon retook the position the next day, they found more than forty dead North Korean soldiers around his body.

For these heroic actions, PFC Herbert Kaili Pililaau was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first Hawaiian to receive the Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor

Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division

Place and date: Near Pia-ri, Korea, 17 September 1951

G.O. No.: 58, 18 June 1952


Pfc. Pililaau, a member of Company C, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and outstanding courage above and beyond the call of duty in action against the enemy. The enemy sent wave after wave of fanatical troops against his platoon which held a key terrain feature on "Heartbreak Ridge." Valiantly defending its position, the unit repulsed each attack until ammunition became practically exhausted and it was ordered to withdraw to a new position. Voluntarily remaining behind to cover the withdrawal, Pfc. Pililaau fired his automatic weapon into the ranks of the assailants, threw all his grenades and, with ammunition exhausted, closed with the foe in hand-to-hand combat, courageously fighting with his trench knife and bare fists until finally overcome and mortally wounded. When the position was subsequently retaken, more than 40 enemy dead were counted in the area he had so valiantly defended. 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.


In January 2000 in New Orleans, the United States Navy christened a Military Sealift Command cargo ship, the USNS Pililaau (T-AKR-304), in his honor. Thirty-one members of his extended family were given a tour of the ship on 10 December 2003, when it made its first docking in Hawaii.

Also named for Pililaau are a live-fire range at Makua Military Reservation; a park in his hometown of Wai'anae; and the Wai'anae Army Recreation Center.


PFC Herbert Kaili Pililaau was killed in action on 17 September 1951. He was 22 years old. He was buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, HI, on 26 February 1952, in Section P, Grave 127.

Honoree ID: 1220   Created by: MHOH




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