Knife Wielding Badass from history: Herbert K. Pilila’au


Herbert K. Pilila’au, a U.S. Army PFC in the Korean War, died covering his comrades’ withdraw, trench knife in hand. He took 40 North Koreans with him.


I ran a post on the blade-wielding badassery of WWII British Lt. George Cairns from the wonderful site War History Online. This one came across my feed the other day, and I thought that it might be a nice semi-regular feature to pass them along. These heroes deserve their memory to be kept alive, and they live on through the retelling of their stories.

Herbert K. Pilila’au was drafted into the Army and sent to fight in the Korean War. During the Battle of Heartbreak Ridge in September 1951, PFC Pilila’au was in a forward position with his platoon when they came under attack by two battalions of North Korean infantry with supporting artillery fire. A withdraw was ordered and Pililau’au’s squad was ordered to provide covering fire. Pililau’au was the last to leave the position.

From War History Online:

“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, Pililaʻau 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. At this point Hagar fell back to rejoin his troops. When his platoon retook the position the next day, they found forty dead North Korean soldiers around his body.”

I look forward to bringing you a story where the hero was not awarded his country’s highest honor posthumously. PFC Pililau’au was awarded the Medal of Honor the following year, becoming the first Hawaiian to receive the award. The U.S. Navy comissioned a Military Sealift Command cargo ship, the USNS Pililaau (T-AKR-304), in his honor in the year 2000.

His award citation is as follows:

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.



M1918 Trench Knife


  1. Sam L. says:

    I salute his memory.

  2. I particularly enjoy these posts!

  3. AW1Ed says:

    Attention on deck!
    Hand salute,
    Ready, two!
    Rest in peace, PFC Pilila’au.

  4. CJ says:

    Been a while since we had one of these posted.

    Go in peace sir, and may the souls of your enemies serve you well in the afterlife.

  5. David says:

    Some American need to be recognized and this soilder has a storie a great one
    To talk about Herbert pilila’au’ a true American it must be told

  6. mal says:

    where does it say he was using a MK1 trench knife? the detail sounds like he was carrying a non knuckle type knife?

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Knife Wielding Badass from history: Herbert K. Pilila’au

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