Operation Providence

This was an Allied unrealised plan to garrison and hold the area of Gona, Sanananda and especially Buna on the coast of North-East New Guinea (13/22 July 1942).

Lying on the north-east coast of New Guinea, Buna in 1941 was a small village with a tiny anchorage and grass airstrip. The Pacific War would probably have ignored the village had not the Japanese received faulty intelligence that there was a road from Buna across the Owen Stanley Mountains to Port Moresby. As a result, Major General Tomitaro Horii’s South Seas Detachment landed the 15th Independent Engineer Regiment and 1/144th Regiment together with supporting elements, totalling 1,900 troops and 1,200 native labourers from Rabaul, on 22 July 1942 after Allied aircraft set one of their transports on fire. Most of the remaining strength of the South Seas Detachment then lkanded here on 18 August. The road turned out to be a primitive jungle track, the Kokoda Trail, but the Japanese nonetheless made use of this, managing to push to with a few miles of Port Moresby before their offensive was called off because of the need to divert resources to Guadalcanal.

The 'Providence' plan was derived ultimately from the Allied desire to take Buna so that an airfield could be constructed for the use of Allied air power in operations against the Japanese at Lae and Salamaua, which the Japanese had occupied in 'Sr' (ii) on 8/10 March 1942. On 10/11 July, therefore, a small party of US and Australian officers visited Buna in a Consolidated Catalina flying boat and, after their inspection, came to the conclusion that the area around Dobodura, some 15 miles (24 km) to the south of Buna, was the best site for a large airfield with a 7,000-ft (2135-m) runway to provide for bomber operations.

The 'Providence' plan for the occupation of Buna was developed on 13/15 July, and was to be carried out by 'Buna' Force under the command of Brigadier General Robert H. Van Volkenburgh, whose task would be to get the troops to Buna before surrendering command to an Australian brigadier. The 'Buna' Force would then hold the area so that work could be undertaken on the construction of an airfield initially capable of supporting two fighter squadrons, but which would later be expanded to take a third fighter squadron and two heavy bomber squadrons.

The 'Buna' Force was to move in four echelons. The first, containing four companies of Australian infantry and the first US engineers, was to depart Port Moresby 11 days before the landings were scheduled, and reach Buna over the Kokoda Trail. The second echelon was to reach Buna by sea on D-day, and would include more engineers, anti-aircraft troops and specialists. The third echelon was to arrive on the following day, and would comprise an Australian infantry battalion, radar equipment and part of the ground elements of the two fighter squadrons. Finally, on D+14 the last echelon was to arrive, bringing more engineers and the remaining ground element from the fighter squadrons.

D-day was scheduled for the period 10/12 August, and the first echelon was thus to leave Port Moresby on 31 July. This lack of urgency cost the Allies their opportunity, for the Japanese also wished to occupy Buna, in this case as the base for an overland assault along the Kokoda Trail and thus over the Own Stanley mountains toward Port Moresby. During the night of 21/22 July 1,800 Japanese soldiers, supported by 100 naval labourers and 1,200 natives of Rabaul, landed close to Buna in the first stage of 'Ri'.

With the area thus taken by the Japanese forces of Horii’s South Seas Detachment, 'Providence' had to be abandoned. Australian forces then had to hold the Kokoda Trail as the Japanese attempted to reach and take Port Moresby, and Buna was retaken only by January 1943 in the operations associated with ‘Lilliput’.