Scars of Vietnam author Robert Timberg dies aged 76

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Mr. Timberg in Vietnam before he was injured. He later chronicled his wartime and postwar experiences in a powerful memoir. Credit Baltimore Sun Media Group

Robert Timberg, a Marine combat veteran who became an author and journalist after his agonizing recovery from disfiguring scars inflicted by a land mine in Vietnam, died on Sept. 6 in Annapolis, Md. He was 76.

The cause was respiratory failure, his son Craig, a reporter for The Washington Post, said.

Mr. Timberg’s best-known book, “The Nightingale’s Song,” wove together the lives of five of his fellow Naval Academy graduates who went to war in Vietnam.

They included Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who endured torture by the North Vietnamese; Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary and senator from Virginia; and three others who became enmeshed in the Iran-contra scandal during the Reagan administration in the 1980s: Lt. Col. Oliver L. North of the Marines and two former White House national security advisers, John M. Poindexter and Robert C. McFarlane.

The scandal involved shipping arms to Tehran to win the freedom of hostages in Lebanon while using some of the proceeds to fund C.I.A.-backed rebels fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua.

“They are secret sharers,” Mr. Timberg wrote in his 1995 book, “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.” He added: “They shared a seemingly unassailable certainty. They believed in America.”

Reviewing the book in The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that Mr. Timberg had sought 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.”

Mr. Timberg also wrote a memoir, “Blue-Eyed Boy,” in which he recounted the explosion that destroyed his armored personnel carrier and disfigured his face when he was 26, just days before he was to return home on an extended leave. He underwent 35 reconstructive operations.

“I suspect there’s something essentially human about what I fought my way through,” Mr. Timberg wrote. “Somewhere buried in my memory, hidden beneath this terrible mask of scar tissue. I want to remember how I decided not to die. To not let my future die.”

Robert Richard Timberg was born on June 16, 1940, in Miami Beach, the son of Samuel Timberg, a vaudevillian and composer, and the former Rosemarie Sinnott, a dancer. After they divorced, he was raised by his mother in Queens, got his diploma from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and, after attending St. John’s University, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1964.

He served with the First Marine Division in Vietnam starting in 1966 and left as a captain.

His two marriages, to Jane Benson and Kelley Andrews, ended in divorce. He is survived by three children from his first marriage, Scott, Craig and Amanda Timberg; a son, Samuel, from his second marriage; two sisters, Rosemarie Shaw and Patricia Timberg; and four grandchildren.

After his discharge from the Marines, Mr. Timberg studied journalism and earned a master’s degree in 1969 from Stanford University. His first wife had suggested that 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 in 2014. “She said, ‘Yeah, but you wrote good letters to me’” from Vietnam.

He began his career at The Evening Capital in Annapolis before joining The Baltimore Evening Sun in 1973. After studying at Harvard under a Nieman fellowship, he returned to cover Congress for The Evening Sun’s sister paper, The Sun. He retired in 2005 as deputy Washington bureau chief.

In “Blue-Eyed Boy,” Mr. Timberg invoked the “relief at having defied death and a kind of macho attitude” that a seriously injured serviceman like him feels.

He added: “Those are honest emotions, but they are situational. The day ultimately comes when the attention diminishes, the good fellowship is no more because he is mostly alone, and he is faced with the chilling prospect of a lifetime of coping with what war has turned him into.”

Report shared by HanoiJack