On August 18, 1951, the Battle of Bloody Ridge began. During the Korean War, this ground combat battle was an attempt to seize a series of hills that were observation points. U.S. Army Private First Class Herbert Pilila’au was among those service members. As an automatic rifleman, he showed his prowess in battle alongside the 23rd Infantry Regiment.

The U.N. victory at the Bloody Ridge would then lead them to the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge. During Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, learn how Pilila’au’s bravery earned him the Medal of Honor.

Journey of Service

Pililaʻau began his journey in Waiʻanae, a working-class suburb of the Leeward coast of Oahu. He was the ninth of 14 children, nine brothers and five sisters. After he was drafted into the U.S. Army, he attended basic training at Fort Shafter in Honolulu and was sent to Korea in March 1951.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

Pililaʻau served as a private first class with Company C, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division. Volunteering to be his squad’s automatic rifleman, Pililaʻau carried a Browning Automatic Rifle.

Korean War Hero

In August 1951, Pililaʻau 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 Battle of Heartbreak Ridge.

Heartbreak Ridge. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense

On September 17, 1951, Pilila’au, who was a member of Company C, held a key terrain feature on the ridge when the enemy sent wave after wave of attacking troops. Volunteering to remain behind to cover his unit’s withdrawal, Pilila’au fired into the attacking enemy soldiers until his weapon ran out of ammunition. Then he threw hand grenades until he ran out of those as well. At one point, he fought hand-to-hand using a trench knife and his bare fists until the enemy fighters finally overwhelmed him.

For his actions at Heartbreak Ridge, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor later that year by President Harry S. Truman and became the first Hawaiian to receive the Medal of Honor.

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