Operation KE

The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal
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Published:November 15, 2012
By Roger Letourneau (Author), Dennis Letourneau (Author)

This revisionist history questions some key traditional assumptions underlying Operation KE–the rescue of some 10,600 Japanese troops from Guadalcanal. The authors challenge the accepted American view that the Japanese succeeded largely because U.S. Pacific Theater commanders let them. Tracing the course of the air and sea clashes surrounding Operation KE, the writers conclude that Japanese strategic planning took advantage of the strengths possessed by the Imperial armed forces while exploiting the limitations of their adversaries. Operation KE explores the air combat that attended the Japanese evacuation of Guadalcanal in early 1943 - a topic which has hitherto received very little attention. Operation KE was successful largely because Japanese strategic planning and tactical execution was basically sound. The traditional view holds that the Japanese got away with the initiative largely because the Americans let them; the US Pacific high command felt it was not worth the effort to try and stop them. Letourneau contends that this was not entirely the case. He argues that the Cactus Air Force and Guadalcanal-based naval units did their best to disrupt the evacuation, still believing that the Tokyo Express was bringing reinforcements and supplies to the 17th Army. Other US forces in the South Pacific did make a half-hearted and questionably-executed attempt to stop the Japanese, but were bluffed into adopting a "wait-and-see" posture.

Operation KE focuses on the air war fought between the Cactus and US 13th Air Forces on the one hand and the Japanese Navy and Army Air Forces on the other, from mid-December, 1942 to mid-February, 1943. The book scrutinizes the US air strikes against the six KE-related Tokyo Express destroyer runs, plus related air strikes against the Japanese merchant marine, as well as air and naval base-suppression missions undertaken by both sides, to determine what actually happened in order to analyze why the Japanese evacuation succeeded and why Cactus failed to stop it.

Background chapters attempt to assess the respective states of readiness of the Japanese and US air arms in the South Pacific to support on the one hand and counter on the other the execution of Operation KE.

The central portion of the book narrates in some detail what actually occurred in the air and at sea -- including air strikes, fighter sweeps, base suppression missions, and naval sorties -- during the crucial prelude to and the actual playing out of the interrelated events that comprised the evacuation operation.

Concluding chapters analyze, on both strategic and tactical levels, the Japanese planning and execution of Operation KE, and Cactus' initiatives to interdict KE's successful prosecution. The authors conclude that both the Japanese and the American states of readiness on the eve of Operation KE suffered in such matters as optimizing both resources and operating procedures, and combating a hostile environment. Consequently, both combatants were somewhat handicapped in their abilities respectively to carry out and contest Operation KE.

The author contends that the Japanese developed a reasonably sound strategy that exploited those methods and tools of war then in use in the South Pacific; to achieve success, they maximized their own strengths while taking advantage of their adversary's limitations. Contrary to the traditional view, the authors are of the opinion that Japanese utilization of their newly-built airstrip at Munda in the Central Solomons played an important role in the success of Operation KE, which was in keeping with the long-range intention of developing Munda and Vila airstrips as major forward airbases to defend against any Allied push toward Rabaul through the Solomons.

The U.S., on the other hand, by consistently misreading Japanese intent regarding Operation KE and pursuing a cautious offensive strategy, blunted the tactical impact of their initiatives to counter the evacuation. Several imprudent tactical decisions and a misallocation of resources further diluted the strength of US efforts.

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Product Details
  • Subject: World War II
  • Hardback : 416 pages
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press (November 15, 2012)
  • ISBN-10: 1591144469
  • ISBN-13: 9781591144465
  • Product Dimensions: 6 X 9 in
  • Shipping Weight: 0 lb
  • “In summary, the authors aptly describe KE as “a great escape,” successfully evacuating some 10,000 Japanese troops despite continued, often ferocious, U.S. air attack. The final chapter contains a detailed analysis of the reasons why the Japanese succeeded and the Allies failed to stop them, but notes that relatively few of the emperor’s rescued soldiers fought again in the Solomons. Operation KE is a worthwhile contribution to the literature of the Guadalcanal campaign.”

    — Naval History
  • “Extremely detailed, informative and comprehensive.” — Defense Media Network
  • “The narrative is rich in detail of the aerial action, giving comprehensive, blow-by-blow accounts that accentuate the heroism and resourcefulness of the Cactus Air Force crews.” — Seapower Magazine
  • “By far the most detailed treatment of this important and under-studied operation. Packed with new research, the result is a thorough treatment of the air battles that raged in the Solomon Islands at the end of the Guadalcanal campaign.” —Jonathan Parshall, co-author, Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
  • Operation KE is a crackling good account of the Japanese military's successful rescue of their 10,000 troops remaining on Guadalcanal in early 1943. Researched extensively from both U.S. and Japanese records, the story unwinds around day-to-day air and sea combat. The narrative is engrossing and the authors’ conclusions are sure to stir controversy." — Lt. Col. James A. Feliton, USMC (Ret.) former Cactus Air Force Pilot during Operation KE
  • “The surprisingly successful Japanese evacuation of troops from Guadalcanal has for too long been largely ignored or minimized. Deeply researched and detailed, the Letourneaus’ work picks up where John Lundstrom’s masterful The First Team and the Guadalcanal Campaign left off in describing and analyzing the desperate and intense aerial combat that took place over the Japanese destroyer flotillas engaged therein. Detailing the equipment, tactics, challenges, and experiences of the air units and airmen of both sides, this work represents a groundbreaking contribution to this significant and previously overlooked history.”

    —Allyn D. Nevitt, author of Long Lancers

Roger Letourneau is currently retired and living with his wife in southern Ontario after a career that spanned Canadian Crown corporations, the private corporate sector, cultural institutions, and private business entrepreneurship. He has also lectured in History, Marketing, Transportation and Small Business Management at several Canadian and US universities and colleges. He resides in Hamilton, ON, Canada.

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Dennis Letourneau, a professional engineer who obtained his engineering degree from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, lives in Canmore, Alberta.

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