IT became the forgotten secret of World War II in Port Stephens for about 60 years.
The secret was that Bob's Farm was once home to 600 Portuguese and Timorese refugees living rough in army tents hidden in bush off Nelson Bay Road.
The civilian refugees, who'd fled from Timor with virtually nothing, arrived at the isolated, sparsely settled site in January 1943.
By mid-year, many were resettled elsewhere, although nearly 300 evacuees were still living rough in the same hot, spartan bush camp a year later.
Enduring many hardships, two camp refugees later became parents of Jose Ramos Horta, who was to become president of East Timor.
And it wasn't until November 1945, after World War II had ended, some 587 refugees were sent home on the Portuguese ship S.S. Angola, from Newcastle's Lee Wharf.
The Australian Army then dismantled the secret camp, leaving no trace of the 600 refugees who had lived there.
Some locals knew, but even members of two Port Stephens historical societies were unaware of the camp until recent years.
It's also likely the camp might have remained forgotten forever, except for the curiosity of former Australian Army nurse Dorothy Turner (nee Mills).
The late Mrs Turner was briefly the senior sister in charge of the health of the refugees living in dozens of tents and 18 huts at what became known as Bob's Farm Cadre Camp.
She said there were up to six people in each refugee family, but all settled in well.
"For the most part, they were farming, country folk - dusky, dark-eyed smallish people with happy, gentle personalities and very easy to get along with. Children were very dear to them and were everywhere," she said.
"We [nurses] loved the time we spent with them. Also, I might add, we thoroughly enjoyed the unusual freedom of nursing in the bush, away from army protocol and discipline.
"The terror and hardship they had endured must have been indescribable."
Now, the whole story of the refugees in WWII Port Stephens will be told in a new book to be launched this Thursday, November 27, at Bob's Farm Community Hall.
Published by the Port Stephens Family History Society, the 64-page booklet - Bob's Farm Cadre Camp - required a 10-year paper chase for hard evidence in the National Archives and Australian War Memorial.
Author Yvonne Fraser has dedicated the book to the memory of Dorothy Turner, saying it was entirely due to her curiosity of what eventually happened to the Timorese that the book was created.
Fraser writes of the invading Japanese army occupying the entire island of Timor from February 1942. The only opposition was a few hundred Australian and Dutch troops helped by some Portuguese and Timorese natives hiding in the hills around Dili.
After nine months of war, and battling malaria, dysentery and poor food, the plight of the Allied troops grew more desperate as Japanese soldiers, using native Timorese as human shields during battles, moved ever closer.
The Allied soldiers were then evacuated under the noses of the enemy, along with about 600 civilians, some of them political refugees.
The destitute evacuees, all with a price on their heads, were first taken by boat to Australia, then by troop train at night south to Hexham and then in secrecy in trucks to Bob's Farm.
"It's an amazing story, isn't it?" the president of the Lemon Tree Passage-based family history society Denise Gaudion said.
"We have writer Yvonne Fraser and society member Lorraine Cottam, of Boat Harbour, to thank for putting it together.
"Many years ago, former army nurse Dorothy Turner approached Raymond Terrace Historical Society looking for information about the camp. They later approached us. It was a mystery to us, too.
"We thought there was nothing new to learn about Port Stephens history, so it piqued our curiosity. We started to investigate. The site was originally intended as a secret commando camp. Soon after, Lorraine found out about alien registration cards for Portuguese refugees at Bob's Farm.
"Later, Lorraine was able to visit Dorothy Turner in her Victorian home to record her recollections of the WWII camp. She was even given some photos. Soon after [in 2004], Dorothy passed away.
"We think now we have managed to track down two former camp refugees. One is Chance Y, of Elermore Vale, who was a child at the camp. Another we think lives in western Sydney."
Lorraine Cottam said she tracked Dorothy Turner down to a nursing home in Bairnsdale, Victoria, about 10 years ago. She was then 92.
"My [late] husband and I were planning to go to South Australia, so I said to him, 'Do you think we could go via Bairnsdale?' and it's lucky we did. I managed to get an interview there."
The former nurse told Cottam she had earlier tried to submit her written memories to the local RSL, but that they didn't seem interested.
"That's possibly because camp details were all still hush-hush," Cottam said.
"Dorothy described the refugees as wonderful people, simple folk. She was clearly impressed by them. I don't know why the camp presence was once kept so secret, but in World War II you had to get a permit to even visit Nelson Bay.
"That was because of HMAS Assault and the big American and Australian troop presence up there.
"The old Bob's Farm camp is now a private fig and olive farm on Nelson Bay Road, just before the road drops down to the go-karts centre on Marsh Road.
"In World War II, the refugees used to walk down the hill to the then Bob's Farm shop which is now burnt down.
"Lucy Upton was the postmistress and got to know them. Historian Yvonne Fraser has done an absolutely marvellous job. After my husband died, she gathered up all the research material to turn it into the present book."
Cottam said Dorothy Turner's "carefree life" in the Bob's Farm bush ended after only four months when she and other nurses were relocated.
But nurse Turner never forgot the refugees. As she told Cottam years later, before the nurses left they were showered with small gifts from the refugees, who had nothing.
"All this happened in 1943 - but I have often wondered what happened to those brave people," Dorothy Turner once said.
But now, thanks to the the family history society, we all know.
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