Robert R. Timberg, 1940-2016

Robert R. Timberg, a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran, journalist, and acclaimed author, died September 6 at age 76

Best known for The Nightingale’s Song , his excellent book about five famous Vietnam War-era Naval Academy graduates, Bob Timberg was an accomplished journalist and author whose words flowed smoothly onto the page. His last book,  Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir  (2014), is a gripping story centering on his life-altering wounds in the Vietnam War and his ultimate success at overcoming the horrors of three dozen operations on his severely disfigured face.

As we wrote in our review of the book two years ago, Timberg graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and chose to enter the Marine Corps. He served in Vietnam as the XO of Bravo Company of the First Antitank Battalion with the First Marine Division. Since the enemy had precious few tanks, Timberg’s unit performed other roles. That included, as he put it, “direct-fire support of infantry operations, static defense, and convoy protection. Mostly we did convoy duty, escorting trucks of various sizes on resupply missions from base camps to the outskirts of Indian Country.”

It was on a convoy mission outside Da Nang on January 18, 1967, when the vehicle Timberg (who was due to rotate home in thirteen days) was riding on tripped a VC mine. “I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, ” Timberg wrote, “as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.”

The worst of his injuries were to his face, causing severe damage to his mouth, nose, and eyelids. Those injuries brought years of physical pain, accompanied by the psychic trauma of having to deal with his appearance. As Timberg put it: “I looked like a monster.”

He became deeply depressed as he dealt with the pain and the disfigurement. “If I wasn’t the trim, hard-charging young Marine officer, the man who worked himself out of the chaos of a troubled family, who found a gorgeous bride, who was ready to fight and kill for the ideals of his nation, who was I?” Timberg wrote. “I didn’t know anymore.”

This is a story of redemption, though, and Timberg managed to defeat his physical and mental demons. He started graduate school in journalism at Stanford in the fall of 1968. After he finished, Timberg began a journalism career in Annapolis, Maryland, as a general assignment reporter with the local newspaper. He found that life as a hard-working reporter chasing down stories lifted a lot of the anger and bitterness he felt as a result of his disfiguring wounds.

Timberg went on to bigger reporting jobs with the Baltimore Evening Sun and in the Washington Bureau of the Baltimore Sun. He became one of the nation’s top journalists, earning a Nieman fellowship at Harvard. Timberg also wrote several well-received books, including Nightingale’s Song  in 1996, which told the life stories of John McCain, Oliver North, James Webb, Robert McFarland, and James Poindexter.

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