Operation KE was the Jan. 14-Feb. 7, 1943 withdrawal of 10,600 defeated, starving Japanese soldiers of the battered 17th Army from Guadalcanal near the end of the Solomon Islands campaign of World War II.
The operation is often described as an “escape” or a “rescue” in which vast numbers of Japanese soldiers were snatched away from beneath the watchful eyes of Allied air and naval forces.
Derived from the Allies’ code name for Guadalcanal, the Cactus Air Force was a collection of fighters located mostly at Henderson Field, including U.S. Army P-39 and P-400 Airacobras and U. S. Marine Corps F4F Wildcats. No fewer than six of its members, all Marines, were awarded the Medal of Honor for action on that hand-fought island. This ad hoc air arm, together with U.S. naval forces including fast PT boats, defeated the Japanese soundly at Guadalcanal but left them with stranded troops who faced capture or death.
After studying Operation KE (the term, they say, is a meaningless combination of letters and not an abbreviation), Canadian father-and-son scholars Roger and Dennis Letourneau decided to challenge the conventional wisdom that the Japanese succeeded in extracting their troops because the Americans allowed them to do it. In fact, the airmen of the Cactus Air Force fought valiantly to prevent the withdrawal.
The authors give more credit to the Japanese than they may have previously received for pulling off this withdrawal with three separate armed convoy movements through the embattled Guadalcanal sea route known as The Slot. The operation embodied extraordinary cooperation between the rival Japanese navy and army, whose forces in the Solomons were commanded by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto and Army Lt. Gen. Hitoshi Imamura respectively.
The Letourneaus’ history is a “crackling good account” according to U.S. Marine pilot retired Lt. Col. James A. Felton, a Cactus Air Force pilot quoted in promotional literature for the book. In fact, it’s extremely detailed, informative and comprehensive, but it doesn’t crackle much. Missing are the compelling, character-driven personal narratives that are de rigueur in military histories nowadays. There’s a wealth of information about units, weapons, planes, ships and movements but not as much about the personalities of the men who fought on both sides in the hot, sweaty, stinking Solomons campaign.