The fight for the island of Guadalcanal had entered its sixth month, but the situation was vastly different than it had been when the 1st Marine Division walked ashore in August of 1942. Back then, the Marines were the newcomers, with a mission to dislodge a well-equipped, confident Japanese foe.
But as 1943 began, the U.S. Army and Marines 2nd Division now controlled the majority of Guadalcanal. In fact, the last major Japanese stronghold near Mount Austen, called the Gifu, was now being reduced. There was no doubt about the winner now, it was just a matter of how long and how tenaciously the remaining Japanese would hold out.
Japan’s military establishment knew it, and had been debating it back in mid-December. They had been given details of the starving soldiers, the struggle to keep them supplied, the burgeoning U.S. power in the Solomon Islands, along with the certainty that Guadalcanal could no longer be held.
Out of the discussions came Operation Ke, a rather unusual plan (for the Japanese anyway) to, as quietly as possible, evacuate the remaining soldiers from the island without alerting the Americans. To that end, a battalion of Japanese soldiers landed on Guadalcanal’s northwest corner on January 14, 1943. Their arrival, primarily to act as an evacuation rearguard, signalled the start of Operation Ke.
At the same time, ships and aircraft moved into the area to assist with the evacuation. These movements actually served to confuse General Alexander Patch into thinking another offensive was in the works. So Patch acted more conservatively with his troops which, in addition to fighting at the Gifu, were converging on the Japanese from both sides of the island.
I mention Operation Ke’s commencement because, throughout the Pacific War, a “retreat” by the Japanese military was almost unheard of. Usually it was a fight to the death.
Recommended Reading: Guadalcanal