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First Native Hawaiian Medal of Honor recipient remembered for his heroism in the Korean War

U.S. Army PFC Herbert K. Pililāʻau, Korean War Medal of Honor recipient
Courtesy U.S. Army
U.S. Army PFC Herbert K. Pililāʻau, Korean War Medal of Honor recipient

On Veterans Day, we remembered the service of those who defended the country when called upon.

One of the lesser-known stories is that of Waiʻanae native Herbert Pililāʻau — the first Native Hawaiian Medal of Honor recipient. He was awarded the nation’s highest military distinction for making one of the most impressive last stands of the Korean War.

Herbert Kailieha Pililāʻau was 22 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was sent thousands of miles from Waiʻanae to fight in the Korean War.

His niece Yolanda Kala was too young to know her uncle. But she came across letters Pililāʻau wrote to his family.

"They used to send him poi and ‘ōpae and I remember in one of those letters, he wrote back saying that 'It's time to go to the mess hall, but I got the package from you and I’m going to sit here and eat my sour poi and ‘ōpae,' and that going be dinner for him," Kala said.

It is his heroism at the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in 1951 that earned him the U.S. military’s highest decoration — the Medal of Honor.

"He had volunteered to stay back to hold the post so that his men could retreat because they were low in ammo. His men retreated. They couldn’t do anything to help him up there. He was found the next day surrounded by North Koreans," Kala told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

His unit found 40 North Korean bodies surrounding Pililāʻau when they retook the hill the next day. He had served nearly six months before that battle on Sept. 17, 1951.

Pililāʻau grew up in Waiʻanae, the ninth of 14 children. One of his siblings was Kala’s mother, Mercy Garcia.

"My mom must have been a pain in the butt with him. She always wanted him to go dancing and he was the best dancer. So her and her friends would get him up to Schofield, and they could go in with them. And then he was the dance partner for all of them," Kala recounted.

She says family members described him as humble and mild mannered — a music man who loved to dance and wanted to be a police officer.

"He had put in for the police academy and then after he left for the service, the police academy accepted him. You know it makes you wonder how things would have turned out. What would life have been had he been a police officer, and not gone to the service?"

He might have survived the war, but other U.S. soldiers would have perished that day in 1951 if it wasn’t for his selfless act. Kala still grapples with how to react to Korean War veterans who thank her family for their sacrifice.

"I don’t know what to say when they say 'Because of your uncle, I’m alive today.' You don’t have anger about it because he volunteered. He knew what he was going to do and he did it. I’m sure uncle wouldn’t have wanted to make a big hoopla out of it cause it’s just not him. You know? He’s not one to want the recognition. He did what he felt he had to do," she said.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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