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Anyone Who Was In Bobonaro or Atsabe, East Timor During Wwii

Mina Lay

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This is a long shot but I’m interested in getting information and possibly in touch with any families of soldiers who were in Bobonaro and Atsabe (Timor Leste). My grandma’s parents (Chinese Timorese) regularly cooked and fed some Australian troops (they came in groups of 3 to 10) in Bobonaro. My grandma was only young at the time and she remembers an older solider who came every morning for a while for coffee. One of the soldier’s gave her parents some small scissors, I’m guessing to say thank you, which we still have today. My grandma’s house was bombed by the Japanese troops and they lost everything but they fortunately survived as they had ran into hiding when they heard the planes coming.

My grandpa (who has passed away) and his family were in Atsabe and they used to cook and feed the Australian troops there.

I would love to obtain more information or even possibly hear from any families of soldiers who were in these towns.





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Dear Mina:

Thank you for your enquiry.

Bobonaro and Atsabe were both important towns during WWII in Timor-Leste with Australian troops based in them for lengthy periods, especially between March – September 1942.  After that time the towns were occupied and garrisoned by the Japanese.  Both towns were heavily bombed by both the Japanese and Allied air forces at different times.


The following description and map of the town was published in the ‘Area study of Portuguese Timor’ (1943).  The location of the Chinese shops is indicated on the map:

Bobonaro … is 35 miles (56 km.) at a bearing of 205° from Dili.  It is at an elevation of about 2,600 feet (790 m.) on the southern slopes of the Ramelau Range and looks south over the valley of the Lone-Mea River.

Bobonaro is a posto town and capital of Fronteira Province.  The regular posto buildings are stone and are enclosed by a high wall.  On the west side is a row of about 10 Chinese shops and on the north 3 long buildings used as cavalry barracks and large enough for 60 soldiers.  There is a small Catholic church to the northwest.  There are in addition to many stone houses of the native officials about 100 native huts widely dispersed around the town and along the road leading north to Atsabe.  The town has a water supply piped from nearby hills to a small concrete reservoir.

Bobonaro can be easily recognised from the air because two large Maltese Crosses in a background of white stone are set in a large garden plot in front of the posto.  These crosses are easily visible and identifiable from the air.

The Chinese quarter of the town is on the northwest of the central square; beneath the trees here a number of slit trenches have been dug.

Bobonaro has a cemetery, which is north of the town and west of the road leading to Atsabe and Dili.


A similar description and map of Atsabe was also included in the same publication:

Atsabe (Nova Ourem) is 9 miles (14 km.) at a bearing of 28° from Bobonaro.  Atsabe is one of the larger postos and market centres and its buildings number about 20 in all.  These stone buildings, most of which have galvanized iron roofing, comprise posto and administrative block, church, school and about 15 Chinese shops.  About one mile (11/2 km.) along the Lete-Foho road six bamboo huts with thatched roofs are the native soldiers' barracks.  These huts are about 10 feet x 10 feet (3 m. x 3 m.) and are evenly spaced.  The posto is well covered from air observation and is well timbered on the southwest side.  There is a large market square north of the posto, and many trees have been planted around the trading area.  There is a motor road to Bobonaro which for one mile, has good air cover.  Atsabe was the Australian H.Q. of a platoon from May to August, 1942.


Many Australian men passed through Bobonaro and Atsabe at different times, and it is difficult for me to accurately identify the ‘older soldier’ referred to in your message, however the following anecdote, written by Corporal Harry Wray, will be of interest:

"Soon after Dex [Lieutenant David Dexter] took over, he sent Do-Dah [nick-name of an unidentified signaller] off to Ainaro to the Doctor [Dunkley], as he was constantly ill with malaria.  A day or so after he left I too was sent to Ainaro, as I had suffered with severe tooth ache for days, and the only way I could get any ease was by taking large numbers of Aspirins.  I passed through Marobo the first day of my journey, and arrived at Bobonaro that night.  The Saint [Captain Bernard Callinan] was living at Bobonaro at that time.  I also found Do-Dah there, and our Signals Sergeant [Sergeant Frank Press].

Do-Dah and I had a good rest in a nice little house, with about twenty native cavalrymen guarding the house.  Bobonaro was the seat of the Administrator [Sousa Santos], and a few troops of Portuguese native cavalry were stationed in barracks there".


"We had breakfast at a Chinese shop, boiled rice, fried eggs and soya bean sauce.  Another man, who was a Sapper from Koepang, was with us and had plain boiled rice without salt or any flavouring as his meal.  This Sapper was a huge fellow, a one-time wrestling champion, but was now very thin.  He had suffered from some kidney disease after malaria, and had arrived at Bobonaro in a very bad state.  The local Portuguese dispenser cum doctor took him in hand, and for six weeks had him living on the boiled rice without salt or flavouring.  The doctor told him that if he did not stick to the diet he would die.  When I arrived in Bobonaro the Sapper was well enough to travel to Mape and then on to our Doctor at Ainaro".

The man Harry Wray referred to was identified by unit historian Col Doig as:

"‘Tiny’ [Archie] Bowman [who] was a tremendous figure of a man and was a blacksmith with the 2/11th Engineers.  He was a top grade amateur heavyweight wrestler who had beaten such personalities as Scarf and Knight who had represented Australia in the Olympic Games at Amsterdam and Los Angeles".

Both Harry Wray and Tiny Bowman were ‘older men’, being in their early to mid-thirties at the time so either could be the soldier remembered by your grandma.


Ed Willis

President, 2/2 Commando Association of Australia




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Hi Ed,

I can’t thank you enough for your response and the helpful information that you have provided.

I haven’t had the opportunity to return to Timor Leste (having come to Australia as a one year old) so it was very moving for me to read those descriptions and to see the map drawings of where both my grandparents and my father grew up. It also helps me to visualise a bit more the settings my grandma describes to me when she talks about her childhood and what they experienced.

I’m truly touched and eternally grateful for the research you have done and the information that you have provided. There is so much history and I’m appreciative that organisations like these exists so we can gain insight into what life was like during these times and to continue to learn about the sacrifices made for the life and freedom that we enjoy today. I also truly hope to maybe one day make a connection with any families of those who served time in these towns as that part of our shared history.

Thank you,

Mina Lay

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  • 4 weeks later...

Hello Nina Lay

My name is Michael Press, son of Frank Press who is mentioned in Ed Willis's reply, dad, after returning to Australia in 1952, drew a solders settler property of 800 plus acres and named the property Bobanaro (miss spelt in with an 'a' instead of an 'o'), when I asked him as a young child why the name he said when stationed at Bobanaro he thought he may die there then after obtaining his property (Bobanaro) was the only appropriate name he could think of. Just as a point of interest dad was in his in his late twenties and I would think one of the older diggers on Timore during the campaign. Just thought I would pass this on.

Mick Press

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Hi Mick,

Thank you so much for taking the time to reply. 

Do you have any other stories about your father’s time in Bobonaro? I would love to hear more about his experience or any other names of soldiers who were with him in Bobonaro.

And if you don’t mind me asking, in which State/Territory was the property? I would love to tell my grandma.

Thank you,

Mina Lay

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