Robert R. Timberg, Sun reporter and Marine who wrote about Vietnam War, dies

Robert R. Timberg, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and Marine whose 1995 book "The Nightingale's Song," about five Naval Academy graduates who served in the Vietnam War, earned him wide acclaim, died Tuesday of respiratory failure at Anne Arundel Medical Center.

The Annapolis resident was 76.


"Bob Timberg was a genuine American hero who continues to inspire me every day," said Sen. John S. McCain III of Arizona, whose experiences in Vietnam were detailed in "The Nightingale's Song."

The book followed the lives of five U.S. Naval Academy graduates in the war: Senator McCain, former Virginia Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, former National Security Advisor John M. Poindexter and former National Security Advisor Robert C. "Bud McFarlane.


"Bob was a great, great reporter and a very good friend," said Senator Webb. "We had a very good friendship. I first met him when he was covering the Hill for The Sun. He was such a meticulous reporter."

"Baltimore has lost a legendary journalist and a true American hero," Paul West, former White House correspondent for The Sun and later national political correspondent in the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau, wrote in an email. "We all knew Bob as an exemplary human being and a fair-minded newspaperman with a relentless work ethic."

Mr. Timberg served in Vietnam and suffered wounds that required dozens of surgeries.

"He was grievously wounded, as we all know, but there was always a kindness about him," said Senator McCain. "He had a spirit and an accommodation to the visible wound that he bore with pride and endurance.

"He loved life, and was proud of the sacrifice he made for our nation," he said.

Robert Richard Timberg was born June 16, 1940 in Miami, the son of Sammy Timberg, a composer of music for Fleischer Studios cartoons, and Rosemarie Sinnott Timberg, a Ziegfeld Girl who danced in Broadway musicals.

He was raised in New York City and graduated in 1958 from Stuyvesant High School.

He spent a year at St. John's University before entering the Naval Academy in 1960. Upon graduation in 1964, he began service with the Marine Corps and in 1966 was sent to Vietnam, joining the 1st Marine Division.


In January 1967 the young lieutenant — 13 days from going home — was riding atop an Amtrac, an amphibious tractor, loaded with 465 gallons of fuel, near Da Nang. The vehicle struck a land mine.

"I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain, I was being carried aloft by flames," Mr. Timberg wrote in his memoir, "Blue-Eyed Boy."

"In a split second my life had changed," he wrote.

What followed were 35 operations — including one without anesthesia — to help reconstruct his severely burned face.

"Despite small victories, my depression rarely eased, at times dipping into the suicidal, though never long enough for me to act on it," he wrote in his memoir. "I finally accepted reality: I had been horribly disfigured and plastic surgery could only do so much."

"To come back from what he suffered was a true profile in courage," said Joseph M. Coale III, a writer, historian and a former aide to Gov. Harry R. Hughes.


"Bob was an American patriot who never forgot where he came from. He loved the Naval Academy and the affection for the men he served with only grew over the years," Senator McCain said.

After leaving the Marine Corps as a captain, Mr. Timberg studied journalism and earned a master's degree in 1969.

It was his then-wife, Janie Benson, who suggested he consider becoming a newspaperman.

"I said, 'You've got to be kidding, you know I've never had a word in print in my life, not even kindergarten or high school — nowhere,'" Mr. Timberg told NPR interviewer Dave Davies in a 2014 interview. "She said, 'Yeah, but you wrote good letters to me'" while in Vietnam.

He began his career at The Evening Capital in Annapolis, where he worked as a general assignment reporter until being hired by The Evening Sun in 1973.

"He came to reporting rather late, and I admired him for that, and I was struck by how strong his writing was by reading his Evening Capital clips," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a longtime editor of The Evening Sun and The Sun. "I recommended him to Phil Heisler [then editor of the Evening Sun], and we hired him."


"Bob's work was always solid. Like most reporters, he was opinionated about a lot of things, but being that way is not a bad thing," said Mr. Imhoff. "He was a straight reporter who always got the facts and nuances of a story. He was a very old-fashioned reporter in that way."

Mr. Timberg covered City Hall and the Maryland State House until joining The Evening Sun's bureau in Washington. He came to The Sun in 1981.

"The first word that describes Bob is courage," said Ernest B. "Pat" Furgurson, former Washington bureau chief of The Sun. "The fact that after all he had been through as a Marine, scarred as he was, he chose to be a street reporter — meeting new people every day — tells all about him as a man and journalist."

Mr. Timberg became a White House correspondent covering President Ronald Reagan and later served as deputy bureau chief.

"He was just a superb reporter. He would never take 'no' for an answer from anyone," Mr. Furgurson said.

He recalled one instance when he, Mr. Timberg and another Sun colleague interviewed President Reagan in the Oval Office.


"When all the dialogue about high strategy ran down, Bob signed off by asking, 'Mr. President, do you ever send out for Chinese food?' Sadly, Reagan answered, 'No, I just eat what they put down in front of me,'" Mr. Furgurson said.

From 1979 to 1980, Mr. Timberg was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and had also been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. In 1986, the White House Correspondents' Association presented him with its annual Aldo Bleckman Award.

Mr. Timberg retired from The Sun in 2005, then became editor-in-chief of Proceedings, an Annapolis-based magazine for Navy and Marine Corps officers. He held that position until retiring a second time in 2008.

In "The Nightingale's Song," Mr. Timberg "brought John McCain's Vietnam experience to a wider public attention for the first time," said Mr. West.

"As fellow Navy Academy graduates who suffered for their service as Marines in Vietnam, they shared an obvious personal bond," he said. "McCain opened up to Bob in a way that he never had before, and the character of McCain's heroism as a prisoner of war, laid out in meticulous detail in Bob's book, became the foundation of McCain's political career."

In his 1995 New York Times' review of "The Nightingale's Song," Christopher Lehman-Haupt wrote that Mr. Timberg had worked to "dramatize the sense of betrayal these men felt when America turned against the Vietnam War and spell out the tragic consequences of their feelings."


"They are secret sharers," Mr. Timberg wrote, "men whose experiences at Annapolis and during the Vietnam War and its aftermath illuminate a generation, or a portion of a generation — those who went. They shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America."

Mr. Timberg also wrote "John McCain: An American Odyssey," and in addition to "Blue-Eyed Boy," another memoir, "State of Grace."

"Work was his hobby," said a son, Craig Timberg of Washington. "He loved being a journalist, and when the time came he was no longer a journalist, he was still looking for a writing project."

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Perhaps the last thing Mr. Timberg wrote was a contribution to the book "The Life of Kings: The Baltimore Sun and the Golden Age of the American Newspaper," edited by Frederic B. Hill and Stephens Broening, former Sun reporters and foreign correspondents.

"What Bob brought to everything was a total commitment to it, and hard work," Mr. Broening said. "He was indefatigable and would chase sources to the end of the earth.

"He loved what he was doing and everyone admired him," he said. "His death is a terrific loss."


A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Hardesty Funeral Home, 12 Ridgely Ave., in Annapolis. Plans for another public memorial service to be held in September are incomplete.

In addition to his son, Mr. Timberg is survived by two other sons, Scott Timberg of Los Angeles and Samuel Timberg of Wilmington, Del.; a daughter, Amanda Timberg of London; two sisters, Rosemarie Shaw of Eugene, Ore., and Patricia Timberg of Capitola, Calif.; and four grandchildren. Marriages to Janie Benson and the former Kelley Andrews ended in divorce.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.