SEALIFT

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March 2004

Pililaau legacy alive in the Aloha State
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By Larry "E" Crutchfield

USNS Pililaau
USNS Pililaau sits pierside at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during the February loadout of 25th Infantry Division cargo bound for Afghanistan. Larry "E" Crutchfield photos

Living up to family expectations is not always easy. Doctors expect their offspring to become doctors. Lawyers want little litigators. Farmers want their farms to stay in the family name. So what do you do if you are the namesake of a Korean War hero?

In the case of USNS Pililaau, a 950-foot-long, large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off cargo ship named for U.S. Army Pvt. Herbert K. Pililaau, you try to uphold the honor of your namesake in every mission you are asked to complete.

Pililaau, a Hawaiian-born soldier, posthumously earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the infamous battle at Heartbreak Ridge. Pililaau, a quiet young man who wanted to be a police officer, volunteered to cover the withdrawal of his platoon from this battle. He fought until his ammunition was exhausted, threw all his grenades, pulled his bayonet and continued to fight oncoming enemy soldiers hand-to-hand, killing more than 40 of them before he was finally overwhelmed and killed.

According to the ship's former master, Capt. Frank Reed, "Pililaau and her crew really work hard to live up to Pvt. Pililaau's example. She's been running non-stop for well over a year now, and she's never missed a commitment. And the crew . . . well, they've been giving up their leave and extending their tours of duty to stay with the ship. She's a good ship."

25th ID humvees
25th ID humvees begin their long journey to Afghanistan by driving aboard USNS Pililaau.

USNS Pililaau was in Pearl Harbor in early December to pick up elements of the Army's Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division headed for duty in Iraq. After loading nearly 250,000 square feet of cargo, the ship set sail for the Middle East on Dec. 18 and arrived in Kuwait the afternoon of Jan. 13. In a mere 23 hours, the ship was unloaded and ready for her return trip to Hawaii to take on additional elements of the 25th Infantry Division bound for Afghanistan. Stopping for fuel during her transit, Pililaau arrived in Pearl Harbor Feb.7, and began loading again eight days later. In just under 96 hours, 1,900-plus pieces of equipment, or more than 212,000 square feet of cargo, were loaded aboard. On Feb. 18, Pililaau swung her bow to the west for her sixth voyage to the Middle East since her December 2002 activation.

Sitting in the ship master's office, having just assumed command of Pililaau on Feb. 13, Capt. Karl Faulkner noted, "We're not heroes like Pvt. Pililaau. We're just merchant mariners doing our part for Operation Iraqi Freedom and the global war on terrorism. The real heroes are the soldiers, Sailors, airmen and Marines over in Iraq and around the world in harm's way."

The mariners crewing Pililaau may not think of themselves as heroes. But there are others who do.

"We're really proud of them," said James Pililaau, Pvt. Pililaau's nephew. "My uncle would be proud of them, too."