Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal

  • Published

Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 416 pp.

Roger and Dennis Letourneau offer a revisionist look at a unique Japanese operation from the Guadalcanal campaign. Their book, Operation KE, covers the highly successful withdrawal of the Japanese 17th Army from the island in early 1943 and attempts to determine if the operation’s success stemmed from careful Japanese planning, the failure of American interdiction forces, or just plain luck on the part of the 12,000 evacuees. As often happens with military operations, the authors identify multiple factors that run the gamut of issues identified, each contributing to Operation KE’s success.

The Letourneaus do not limit themselves to a dry discussion of strategies and large unit movements. Instead, they mine unit reports and memoirs from both sides of the conflict for descriptions of air action from every day of the operation. The result is a rich description of aerial combat covering the terror of bombing raids, the tension of long-range reconnaissance missions, and the thrill and horror of intense dogfights. An early discussion of American and Japanese aircraft and their respective tactics helps to enrich the lengthy description of each aerial encounter.

Unfortunately, the copious descriptions of air combat detract from the bigger issues that the book addresses. The reader is left with a work that tries to read like one of Stephen Ambrose’s popular histories of World War II but comes up short. The authors cover the higher-level aspects of the operation but expect the reader to possess a basic understanding of the Guadalcanal campaign since the book does not adequately explain the events leading up to Operation KE. The work’s attempt to connect the reader to the common Airman also proves inadequate since the breadth of aerial encounters discussed fails to allow the reader to identify with any of the individuals. Instead of producing a history that blends high-level concepts with human stories, the Letourneaus instead have created two books and fail in their attempts to combine them.

Nevertheless, readers interested in World War II should not discount this work but should understand what it is and then concentrate on the aspect they are most interested in. Scholars will appreciate the authors’ theories of the Japanese success. Modern military strategists and planners could also draw lessons from each side since KE is an excellent example of a complex joint operation conducted in the Pacific—the latest strategic focus of the American military. Finally, history buffs and pilots will revel in the stories of the Cactus Air Force’s efforts to own the skies and control the seas of the South Pacific. Overall, Operation KE has a little something for everyone, but not everyone will enjoy the book in its entirety.

Capt Ian S. Bertram, USAF

Kirtland AFB, New Mexico

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."