Operation Ke (i)

This was the Japanese evacuation of the remnants of Lieutenant General Harukichi Hyakutake’s 17th Army from Guadalcanal after the failure of ‘Ka’ (ii) (1/9 February 1943).

On 7 August 1942 Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift’s US 1st Marine Division had made its 'Watchtower' landing on Guadalcanal island in the Solomons islands group to the south-east of New Guinea. The Japanese had occupied the island in the preceding month as a location essential to the security of the outer defence perimeter they were establishing to shield their gains of late 1941 and early 1942. The Japanese believed that the island could be developed as a base from which the Allied lines of maritime communication across the Pacific (from the USA to New Zealand and Australia) could be interdicted, so preventing the build-up of forces for a riposte against the ‘Southern Resources Area’ of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’.

There followed a period of intense fighting not only on the island, but in the air above it and the waters surrounding it. Both sides ferried in reinforcements, but a time late in 1941 the Americans had clearly gained the upper hand over the 17th Army, whose remnants were fighting a bitter rearguard action. In December 1942 the Imperial General Headquarters acceded to an Imperial Japanese navy recommendation that Guadalcanal be abandoned and the surviving elements of the 17th Army be withdrawn, and the Japanese now planned to evacuate these remnants in the period from 1 February 1943.

Developed and prepared materially from December 1942 at Rabaul, though some initial planning had been started in the preceding month, by the headquarters of the Japanese forces in the South-West Pacific theatre, this ‘Ke’ (i) operation had been authorised on 26 December 1942, following a period throughout November when the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo continued to support further efforts to retake Guadalcanal. At the same time, however, lower-ranking staff officers began quietly to discuss the abandonment of the island after the last Japanese troops had been evacuated. Later in the month the War Ministry informed the Imperial General Headquarters that there was insufficient shipping to support both an effort to retake Guadalcanal and to transport strategic resources to maintain Japan’s economy and military forces.

On 19 December, a delegation of Imperial General Headquarters staff officers, led by Colonel Joichiro Sanada, chief of the operations section, reached Rabaul on New Britain for discussions about future plans concerning New Guinea and Guadalcanal. General Hitoshi Imamura, commanding the 8th Area Army responsible for Japanese army operations in New Guinea and the Solomon islands, did not directly recommend a withdrawal from Guadalcanal but laid out the difficulty of any further attempt to retake the island. Imamura also stated that any decision to withdraw should include plans to evacuate as many soldiers as possible. Sanada returned to Tokyo on 25 December and suggested that Guadalcanal be abandoned without delay and priority be given to the campaign in New Guinea. The Imperial General Headquarters’ senior members agreed with Sanada’s recommendation on 26 December and ordered their staffs to begin drafting plans for the withdrawal from Guadalcanal and establishment of a new defence line in the central Solomon islands.

On 28 December, General Hajime Sugiyama and Admiral Osami Nagano, the army and navy chiefs-of-staff, personally informed Emperor Hirohito of the decision to withdraw from Guadalcanal, and on 31 December the emperor formally endorsed the decision, which was passed to the 8th Area Army and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet on 3 January. By 9 January the staffs of the Combined Fleet and 8th Area Army had completed the ‘Ke’ (i) plan. This called for a battalion of army infantry to be landed by destroyer on Guadalcanal on about 14 January to act as a rearguard during the evacuation; the 17th Army to begin withdrawing to the western end of the island on 25/26 January; and an air superiority campaign to be started around the southern end of the Solomon islands group on 28 January to cover and, if possible, to conceal the evacuation from the Americans. The remnants of the 17th Army were then to be evacuated in three lifts by destroyers during the first week of February with a target completion date of 10 February. At the same time, Japanese air and naval assets would conduct conspicuous manoeuvres and minor attacks around New Guinea and the Marshall islands, together with deceptive radio traffic, in an effort to confuse the Allies about Japanese intentions.

Yamamoto detailed the fleet carriers Junyo and Zuiho, battleships Kongo and Haruna, and four heavy cruisers plus a destroyer screening force under Vice Admiral Nobutake Kondo, commander of the 2nd Fleet, to provide distant cover for ‘Ke’ (i) around Ontong Java in the northern part of the Solomon islands group.

The evacuation runs were to be implemented and supported by Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa’s 8th Fleet, comprising the heavy cruisers Chokai and Kumano, light cruiser Sendai and 21 destroyers, the last being charged with the actual evacuation. Yamamoto expected that at least half of Mikawa’s destroyers would be sunk during the operation.

Supporting the air superiority portion of the operation were the Japanese navy air force’s 11th Air Fleet under Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka and the Japanese army air force’s 6th Air Division under Lieutenant General Giichi Itahana, based at Rabaul with 212 and 100 aircraft respectively. In addition, 64 aircraft from the fleet carrier Zuikaku were temporarily assigned to Rabaul. An additional 60 floatplanes from the Japanese navy air force’s ‘R’ Area Air Force, based at Rabaul and on Bougainville island and the Shortland islands group, brought the total number of Japanese aircraft involved in the operation to 436.

The Japanese warship and naval air units in the area formed the South-Eastern Area Fleet, commanded from Rabaul by Kusaka.

Opposing the Japanese and led by Admiral William F. Halsey, commanding the Allied forces in the South Pacific Area, were the fleet carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, six escort carriers, three newer fast battleships, four older slow battleships, 13 cruisers and 45 destroyers. In the air, Brigadier General Nathan F. Twining’s 13th AAF had 92 fighters and bombers, and Brigadier General Francis P. Mulcahy’s ‘Cactus Air Force’ on Guadalcanal had 81 aircraft. Rear Admiral Aubrey W. Fitch was overall commander of Aircraft South Pacific. The air units of the fleet and escort carriers added another 339 aircraft. In addition, 30 heavy bombers were stationed in New Guinea with sufficient range to conduct missions over the Solomon islands. In total, therefore, the Allies had some 539 aircraft with which to oppose ‘Ke’ (i).

By the first week of January, disease, starvation and combat had reduced the 17th Army on Guadalcanal to a strength of only about 14,000 men, many of them too sick and/or malnourished to fight. The 17th Army possessed only three serviceable pieces of artillery, for which only minuscule stocks of ammunition were available.

In contrast, the US commander on the island, Major General Alexander McC. Patch, fielded a combined force of US Army and US Marine Corps formations, designated as the XIV Corps, totalling 50,666 men. At Patch’s disposal were 167 pieces of artillery, including 75-, 105- and 155-mm (2.95-, 4.13- and 6.1-in) guns with plentiful stocks of ammunition.

On 1 January 1943 the Japanese changed their military radio communication codes, making it more difficult for Allied intelligence, which had heretofore partially broken Japanese radio ciphers, to divine Japanese intentions and movement. As January progressed, Allied reconnaissance and radio traffic analysis noted the build-up of ships and aircraft at Truk atoll in the Caroline islands group, Rabaul and the Shortland islands group. Allied analysts determined that the increased radio traffic in the Marshall islands group was a deception intended to divert attention from an operation about to take place in either New Guinea or the Solomon islands group.

Allied intelligence misinterpreted the nature of the operation, however, and on 26 January the Allied Pacific Command’s intelligence section informed the Allied forces in the Pacific that the Japanese were preparing a new offensive, designated as ‘Ke’ (i), in either the Solomon islands group or New Guinea.

On 14 January a ‘Tokyo Express’ undertaking by nine destroyers delivered to Guadalcanal Major Keiji Yano’s ‘Yano’ Battalion as the ‘Ke’ (i) rear guard. The battalion comprised 750 troops and one battery of mountain guns with another 100 men. Accompanying the battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Kumao Imoto, representing the 8th Area Army and entrusted with the delivery of the evacuation order and plan to Hyakutake, whose 17th Army had not yet been informed of the decision to withdraw.

'Cactus Air Force' and 13th AAF attacks on the nine destroyers during their return trip damaged Arashi and Tanikaze, and destroyed eight Japanese fighters escorting the convoy; five American aircraft were also shot down.

Late on 15 January, Imoto reached the 17th Army’s headquarters at Kokumbona and informed Hyakutake and his staff of the decision to withdraw from the island. Grudgingly accepting the order on 16 January, the 17th Army staff communicated the evacuation plan to their forces on 18 January. The plan directed Lieutenant General Tadayoshi Sano’s 38th Division, currently seeking to check a US offensive on ridges and hills in the interior of the island, to disengage and withdraw toward Cape Esperance on the western end of Guadalcanal from 20 January. The division’s retirement would be covered by Lieutenant General Masao Maruyama’s 2nd Division, which had been on Guadalcanal since October 1942, and the ‘Yano’ Battalion, both of which would then follow the 38th Division to the west.

Patch launched a new offensive just as the 38th Division began to withdraw from the inland ridges and hills which it had occupied. On 20 January Major General J. Lawton Collins’s 25th Division attacked Hills 87, 88 and 89, which constituted a ridge that dominated Kokumbona. Encountering much lighter resistance than anticipated, the Americans had taken the three hills by the morning of 22 January. Shifting forces to exploit the unexpected breakthrough, Collins quickly continued the advance and captured the next two targets, Hills 90 and 91, by the fall of night, placing the US forces in a position to isolate and capture Kokumbona, and so trap the 2nd Division. Reacting quickly to the situation, the Japanese hurriedly evacuated Kokumbona and ordered the 2nd Division to start an immediate retirement to the west. The Americans captured Kokumbona on 23 January. Although some Japanese units were trapped between the American forces and destroyed, most of the 2nd Division’s survivors escaped.

Still fearing a renewed and reinforced Japanese offensive, Patch committed the equivalent of only one regiment at a time to attack the Japanese forces in the area to the west of Kokumbona, keeping the rest near Lunga Point to protect the airfield. The terrain to the west of Kokumbona favoured the Japanese efforts to delay the Americans as the rest of the 17th Army continued its withdrawal toward Cape Esperance. The US advance was hemmed into a corridor only 300 to 600 yards (270 to 550 m) wide between the sea and the thick inland jungle and steep coral ridges. The ridges, running at right angles to the coast, were divided by numerous streams and creeks that crossed the corridor in a large number of places. As the US Army and US Marine Corps’ formations on Guadalcanal has suffered heavy losses from combat and disease, Patch reorganised his pursuit forces to create Brigadier General Alphonse de Carre’s so-called Composite Army-Marine Division, which grouped the US Army’s 147th Infantry and 182nd Infantry with the US Marine Corps’ 6th Marines, together with artillery from Brigadier General Edmund B. Sebree’s Americal Division and Major General John Marston’s 2nd Marine Division (actually led by DeCarre to avoid the problem that Marston was senior to Patch); the rest of the Americal and 2nd Marine Divisions held the US perimeter east of the Matanikau river.

On 26 January, as the 25th Division was executing a difficult swing to the north-west in the direction of Kokumbona, the CAM Division was advancing to the west and encountered the ‘Yano’ Battalion at the Marmura river. Yano’s troops temporarily halted the US advance and then withdrew slowly to the west during the three days which followed. On 29 January the ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated across the Bonegi river, where elements of the 2nd Division had constructed another defensive position, and here these Japanese defences checked the US advance for almost three days. On 1 February, with help from a shore bombardment by the destroyers Wilson and Anderson, the Americans successfully crossed the river but did not immediately press the advance to the west.

In preparation for ‘Ke’ (i), the Japanese tried to gain a measure of air superiority over Guadalcanal in an effort launched in mid-January 1943. This campaign started with night harassment attacks on Henderson Field by anything between three and 10 aircraft, which caused little damage. On 20 January one Kawanishi H8K 'Emily' flying boat bombed Espíritu Santo, and five days later the Japanese navy air force despatched 58 Mitsubishi A6M Reisen ‘Zero’ fighters on a daylight raid. The 'Cactus Air Force', based on Henderson Field and centred on Mulcahy’s own 2nd Marine Air Wing but including major USAAF and US Navy contributions, responded by launching eight Grumman F4F Wildcat and six Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters, which shot down four A6M aircraft without loss. The Japanese launched a second large raid on 27 January when they despatched nine Kawasaki Ki-48 'Lily' light bombers escorted by 74 Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa 'Oscar' fighters of the Rabaul-based 6th Air Division. Twelve F4F, six P-38 and 10 Curtiss P-40 fighters from Henderson Field met the raid over Guadalcanal. In the resulting action, the Japanese lost six fighters while the 'Cactus Air Force' lost one Wildcat, four P-40 and two P-38 fighters. The Ki-48 bombers dropped their bombs on the US positions around the Matanikau river, causing little damage.

Believing that the Japanese were starting another major offensive in the south-eastern part of the Solomon islands group with Henderson Field as their primary objective, Halsey responded, from 29 January, by sending a resupply convoy to Guadalcanal supported by most of his warship forces, divided into five task forces. These task forces included two fleet carriers, two escort carriers, three battleships, 12 cruisers, and 25 destroyers. Ahead of these task forces was Task Group 62.8, the troop convoy carrying US Army forces to allow the replacement of the exhausted 2nd Marines, who had been on Guadalcanal since October 1942. TG62.8 comprised four transports supported by four destroyers. Ahead of the troop convoy, between Rennell island and Guadalcanal, was Rear Admiral Robert C. Giffen’s Task Force 18 as the close support group comprising the heavy cruisers Wichita, Chicago and Louisville, light cruisers Montpelier, Cleveland and Columbia, escort carriers Chenango and Suwannee, and eight destroyers. A carrier task force centred on the fleet carrier Enterprise and commanded by Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman was about 250 miles (400 km) behind TG62.8 and TF18.

The other fleet carrier and battleship task forces (the former being TF11 centred on Saratoga and commanded by Rear Admiral DeWitt C. Ramsey, and the latter comprising North Carolina, Indiana and Washington commanded by Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee) were about 150 miles (240 km) farther to the rear. In addition to protecting the troop convoy, TF18 was to rendezvous at 21.00 on 29 January with a force of four US destroyers, stationed at Tulagi, for a sweep to the north-west along ‘The Slot’ on the following day to shield the unloading of the troop transports at Guadalcanal.

With a maximum speed of only 18 kt, Commodore Ben Wyatt’s escort carriers were too slow to allow Giffen’s force to accomplish the planned rendezvous, however, so Giffen left the carriers behind with two destroyers at 14.00 and pushed ahead at 24 kt. Wary of the threat from Japanese submarines, of which Allied intelligence had warned, Giffen disposed his cruisers and destroyers for anti-submarine defence, not expecting an air attack: the cruisers steamed in two columns, 2,500 yards (2285 m) apart with Wichita, Chicago and Louisville to starboard and Montpelier, Cleveland and Columbia to port. The six destroyers were spread in a semi-circle 2 miles (3.2 km) ahead of the cruiser columns.

TF18 was being tracked by Japanese submarines, which reported the US task group’s location and movement. At about the middle of the afternoon, 16 Mitsubishi G4M ‘Betty’ and 16 Mitsubishi G3M ‘Nell’ torpedo-armed bombers of the 701st Kokutai and 705th Kokutai took off from Rabaul to attack TF18. One G3M turned back with engine trouble, leaving the attack force with 31 torpedo bombers. As the sun set, TF18 was heading to the north-west some 50 miles (80 km) north of Rennell island and 100 miles (160 km) to the south of Guadalcanal. Several of Giffen’s ships made radar detections of unidentified aircraft 60 miles (100 km) to the west. Having previously insisted on absolute radio silence, Giffen gave no orders, and TF18’s combat air patrol from the two escort carriers returned to their ships for the night. The radar contacts were the 31 oncoming Japanese torpedo bombers, which now circled around to the south of TF18 so that they could attack from the east, with the black backdrop of the eastern sky behind them. From this direction, the Japanese bombers were concealed against the night sky but the US ships were silhouetted against the twilight of the western horizon.

The G4M bombers attacked first from 19.19, but all missed with all of their torpedoes and suffered the loss of one aeroplane to the anti-aircraft fire of the US warships. Believing that the attack had ended, Giffen ordered his ships to cease evasive action and continue toward Guadalcanal on their original base course and speed. Meanwhile, a Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane started to drop flares and floatlights to mark TF18’s course and speed, and so assist the impending attack by the G3M bombers.These started their torpedo-dropping runs at 19.38, and their weapons scored two hits on Chicago, causing severe damage and bringing the cruiser to a halt. Another torpedo hit Wichita but did not explode, and two of the bombers were shot down by anti-aircraft fire.

At 20.08 Giffen ordered his ships to reverse course, slow to 15 kt and cease their anti-aircraft fire. This ploy succeeded in hiding the US warships from the Japanese aircraft, whose survivors had left the area by 23.35. In pitch darkness, Louisville managed to take Chicago in tow and headed slowly to the south, out of the battle area, escorted by the rest of TF18. Halsey immediately took steps to try to protect the damaged Chicago, ordering the escort carriers to ensure that they had launched their combat air patrols by first light, ordering the Enterprise’s task force to close on TF18 and strengthen the combat air patrol provided by the escort carriers, and sending the fleet tug Navajo to take over the tow from Louisville. This last had taken place by 08.00.

Between daybreak and 14:00, many Japanese reconnaissance aircraft approached TF18 and, though driven away by the combat air patrol, nonetheless sighted and reported Chicago’s location. At 12.15 some 11 G4M torpedo bombers of the 751st Kokutai, departing from Kavieng and staging through Buka, were launched to attack the damaged US cruiser. The US warships were informed of the Japanese effort as a result of a report from an Australian coast watcher in farther to the north-west along the Solomon islands chain, and it was estimated that the Japanese aircraft would arrive overhead at about 16.00. Halsey ordered the rest of the cruisers to leave Chicago and head for Efate in the New Hebrides islands, which they did at 15.00, leaving six destroyers to protect Chicago and Navajo.

At 15.40 Enterprise was 43 miles (69 km) distant from Chicago, with 10 of her fighters as the combat air patrol over the cruiser, four of the fighters then chasing and shooting down a reconnaissance aeroplane. At 15.54, Enterprise’s radar detected the Japanese bomber force, and the carrier launched 10 more fighters to attack the Japanese formation. The escort carriers, however, had difficulties in getting their aircraft launched, preventing them from joining in the attack on the bomber formation until the engagement was over. Initially the Japanese bombers appeared to be trying to approach and attack Enterprise, but then turned toward Chicago after six of Enterprise’s fighters began to engage them. Four other fighters chased the bombers as they entered the anti-aircraft fire zone of Chicago’s escorting destroyers. Two of the bombers were shot down before they reached torpedo release range, and six more were shot down moments later but only after they had released their torpedoes. Of these six torpedoes, one hit the destroyer La Vallette in her forward engine room, killing 22 of her crew and causing severe damage, four hit Chicago as one forward of the bridge and the other three her engineering spaces, and the last failed to find a target. Chicago’s captain ordered the ship to be abandoned, and the cruiser sank 20 minutes later, taking with her 62 members of the crew. Navajo and the escorting destroyers rescued 1,049 survivors. A final Japanese torpedo bomber force did not locate the remaining US ships.

Navajo then took La Vallette in tow, and TF18’s other ships reached in Espíritu Santo without further incident. With the Japanese concentrating on the battle against TF18, meanwhile, the transports had been able to complete the replacement of the remaining US Marine forces on Guadalcanal over the last two days in January. During this time, Halsey’s other Allied task forces, including the two fleet carrier task forces, took station in the Coral Sea, in anticipation of an expected Japanese offensive in the south-eastern part of the Solomon islands group. The departure of TF18 from the Guadalcanal area removed a significant potential threat to the ‘Ke’ (i) operation.

Also on 29 January, at 18.30 the corvettes Moa and Kiwi of the Royal New Zealand Navy intercepted the Japanese submarine I-1 which was attempting a supply run, off Kamimbo on Guadalcanal. The two corvettes sank the submarine after a 90-minute battle.

Leaving his cruisers at Kavieng, Mikawa had meanwhile gathered all 21 destroyers of his 8th Fleet in the Shortland islands group on 31 January to begin the evacuation runs. Rear Admiral Shintaro Hashimoto was placed in charge of this group of destroyers, which was styled the Reinforcement Unit. The ‘R’ Area Air Force’s 60 floatplanes were tasked with scouting for the Reinforcement Unit and helping defend against PT-boat attacks during the nocturnal evacuation runs. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers of the USAAF attacked the anchorage of the Shortland islands group during the morning of 1 February, causing no damage and losing four aircraft to Japanese fighters. On the same day, aircraft of the 6th Air Division raided Henderson Field with 23 Ki-43 fighters and six Ki-48 bombers, but caused no damage and suffered the loss of one fighter.

Believing that the Japanese might be retreating toward the south coast of Guadalcanal, Patch on the morning of 1 February landed a reinforced battalion of US Army and US Marine Corps troops, about 1,500 men under the command of Colonel Alexander George, at Verahue on the south coast of Guadalcanal. The US troops were delivered to the landing location by a naval transport force of six landing craft tank and the high-speed destroyer transport conversion Stringham, escorted by the four destroyers, namely Nicholas, Fletcher, Radford and De Haven of the 'Cactus Striking Force', which were to have joined TF18 three days earlier.

A Japanese reconnaissance aeroplane spotted the landing force. Believing that the force posed a threat to that night’s scheduled evacuation run, the Japanese launched an attack force of 13 Aichi D3A 'Val' dive-bombers escorted by 40 'Zero' fighters from Buin on Bougainville island. Mistaking the Japanese aircraft as friendly, the US destroyers withheld fire until the dive-bombers began their attacks. Beginning at 14.53, the destroyer De Haven was hit by three bombs in quick succession and sank almost immediately some 2 miles (3.2 km) to the south of Savo island with the loss of 167 of her crew. The destroyer Nicholas was damaged by several near-misses. Five dive-bombers and three fighters were lost to anti-aircraft fire and fighters of the 'Cactus Air Force', which lost three F4F fighters in the engagement.

Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands group at 11.30 on 1 February with 20 destroyers for the first evacuation run: 11 destroyers were designated as transports and the other nine as escorts. The destroyers were attacked in the late afternoon near Vangunu by 92 'Cactus Air Force' aircraft. The aircraft scored a near miss on Makinami, Hashimoto’s flagship, and severely damaged it. Four US aircraft were shot down. The so-called ‘Cactus Striking Force’ moved in from the west in an effort to intervene, but were driven off by Japanese air attacks, which sank De Haven and slightly damaged Nicholas.

Hashimoto transferred to Shirayuki and detached Fumizuki to tow Makinami back to base. Eleven PT-boats from Tulagi awaited the Japanese destroyers between Guadalcanal and Savo island. From 22.45 Hashimoto’s warships and the PT-boats engaged in a three-hour series of running battles in which five of the PT-boats fired 19 torpedoes, none of which secured a hit. Aided by ‘R’ Area Air Force aircraft, the Japanese destroyers sank PT-37, PT-111 and PT-123. In the meantime, the transport destroyers arrived off of two pick-up locations at Cape Esperance and Kamimbo at 22.40 and 24.00 respectively. Japanese naval personnel ferried the waiting troops out to the destroyers in barges and landing craft. After embarking 4,935 soldiers, mainly of the 38th Division, the transport destroyers ceased loading at 01.58 and prepared to depart for the return trip to the Shortland islands group.

About this time, Makigumo, one of the screening destroyers, was suddenly wracked by a large explosion as she ran onto a mine in a small field laid only very recently by the minelaying destroyers Montgomery, Preble and Tracy. Informed that Makigumo was immobilised, Hashimoto ordered her to be abandoned and scuttled. During the return voyage, the ships of the Reinforcement Unit were attacked by aircraft of the 'Cactus Air Force' aircraft at 08.00, but sustained no damage and reached the Shortland islands group without further incident at 12.00 on 2 February.

On 4 February Patch ordered the 161st Infantry of the 25th Division to replace the 147th Separate Infantry at the front and resume the advance to the west. The ‘Yano’ Battalion retreated to new positions at the Segilau river and troops were sent to block the advance of George’s force along the southern coast. Meanwhile, Halsey’s carrier and battleship task forces remained just beyond Japanese air attack range about 300 miles (480 km) to the south of Guadalcanal. Kondo sent two of his force’s destroyers, Asagumo and Samidare, to the Shortland islands group to replace the two destroyers lost in the first evacuation run.

Under the supervision of Rear Admiral Tomiji Koyonagi, commander of the 2nd Destroyer Division, Hashimoto led the second evacuation mission with the light cruiser Isuzu and 22 destroyers to the south-east in the direction of Guadalcanal at 11.30 on 4 February. US land-based air power attacked Hashimoto’s ships in two waves beginning at 15.50 with a total of 74 aircraft. Near-misses heavily damaged Maikaze, and Hashimoto detached Nagatsuki to take her in tow her back to the Shortland islands group; Shiranui was also badly damaged but able to continue under her own steam, while Kuroshio and Hamakaze suffered lesser damage and were able to continue with the operation. The 'Cactus Air Force' lost 11 aircraft in the attack while the Japanese lost one A6M. The PT-boats did not sortie to attack Hashimoto’s force during this night and the loading went uneventfully. The Reinforcement Unit embarked Hyakutake, his staff, and 3,921 men, mainly of the 2nd Division, and reached Bougainville without incident by 12.50 on 5 February. A force of US attack aircraft launched during that morning failed to locate Hashimoto’s force.

Believing that the Japanese operations on 1 and 4 February had been reinforcement rather than evacuation missions, the US ground forces moved slowly and cautiously, advancing only about 900 yards (820 m) each day, and George’s force halted on 6 February after advancing to Titi on the south coast. On the north coast, the 161st Infantry finally began its attack to the west at 10.00 on 6 February and reached the Umasani river in the course of the same day. At the same time, the Japanese were withdrawing their remaining 2,000 troops to Kamimbo. On 7 February the 161st Infantry crossed the Umasani river and reached Bunina, about 9 miles (14 km) from Cape Esperance. George’s force, now commanded by George F. Ferry, advanced from Titi to Marovovo and dug in for the night about 2,000 yards (1830 m) to the north of the village.

Aware of the presence of Halsey’s carriers and other major warships near Guadalcanal, the Japanese considered cancelling the third evacuation run, but decided to go ahead as planned. Kondo’s force closed to within 550 miles (890 km) of Guadalcanal from the north to be ready in case Halsey’s warships attempted to intervene. Hashimoto departed the Shortland islands group with 18 destroyers at 12.00 on 7 February, this time taking a course south of the Solomon islands instead of down ‘The Slot’. Some 36 'Cactus Air Force' aircraft attacked Hashimoto’s ships at 17.55, severely damaging Isokaze with a near-miss, this destroyer then retiring under escort of Kawakaze; Hamakaze was also severely damaged. The US and Japanese each lost one aeroplane in the attack.

Arriving off Kamimbo, Hashimoto’s force loaded 1,972 soldiers by 00.03 on 8 February, unhindered by the US Navy. For an additional 90 minutes, destroyer crewmen rowed their boats along the shore calling out to ensure that no one was being left behind. At 01.32 the Reinforcement Unit departed Guadalcanal and reached Bougainville without incident at 10.00, completing ‘Ke’ (i).

At dawn on 8 February the US Army forces on both coasts resumed their advances, encountering only a few sick and dying Japanese soldiers. Patch now realised that the ‘Tokyo Express’ runs over the last week had been evacuation rather than reinforcement missions. At 16.50 on 9 February the two US forces met on the west coast at the village of Tenaro. The Japanese had evacuated a total of 10,652 men from Guadalcanal, about all that remained of the ultimate total of some 36,000 troops who had been sent to the island of Guadalcanal during the campaign: some 600 of the evacuees succumbed to their injuries or illnesses before they could receive sufficient medical care, and 3,000 others required lengthy hospitalisation or recuperation.

After receiving word of the completion of the operation, Yamamoto commended all the units involved and ordered Kondo to return to Truk with his warships.

The 2nd Division and 38th Division were then shipped from Bougainville to Rabaul and partially reconstituted with replacements. The 2nd Division was relocated to the Philippine islands group in March 1943, and the 38th Division was assigned to the defence of Rabaul and the Japanese base area on the island of New Ireland.

At about this time the 8th Area Army and South-Eastern Area Fleet reoriented their forces to defend the central part of the Solomon islands group at Kolombangara and New Georgia, and prepared to send reinforcements, comprising mostly Lieutenant General Hidemitsu Nakano’s 51st Division, originally detailed for Guadalcanal, to New Guinea. The 17th Army was rebuilt around Lieutenant General Masatane Kanda’s 6th Division and headquartered on Bougainville.

A few Japanese stragglers remained on Guadalcanal, many of whom were subsequently killed or captured by Allied patrols. The last known Japanese survivor surrendered in October 1947.

‘Ke’ (i) had been a remarkable operation by any standard, and quite remarkably the Americans had failed to respond with determined surface attacks by anything other than coastal craft.