Harness Racing Loses a Hero

December 23, 2002 -- Wayne Kimball was involved in harness racing for more than 40 years.
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December 23, 2002 -- Wayne Kimball was involved in harness racing for more than 40 years.

December 23, 2002 -- He was a quiet man, perhaps unnoticed by many. Those who did notice probably thought him a bit of an eccentric. He never married. He lived alone; for the last 30 years, his place of residence was the Bond County Fairgrounds in Illinois. First, he lived in a tack room and later he moved into a trailer on the grounds. It was space he shared joyously with horses - not a surprise given the fact he spent more than four decades involved in harness racing - and numerous cats and dogs.

Those who knew him agreed Wayne Kimball was somewhat unconventional. Yet they saw him as a paradox, a simple man made up of multifaceted layers. He was, for all his anonymity, someone who was respected and admired by his friends. And that respect and admiration grew upon Kimball's death on October 3. Wayne Kimball, they discovered, was a hero.

Sure, Kimball's friends knew he was a pilot during World War II. He had shared a few stories about his experiences of flying a small Piper Cub over enemy lines to assist U.S. artillery troops in locating enemy divisions. But no one knew the complete story until after Kimball passed away at the age of 83 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Marion, Illinois.

Kimball, who after the war became involved in harness racing as an owner, trainer, and driver, was an artillery spotter for the Army's 941st Field Artillery Battalion and saw action at Normandy, northern France, Ardennes, central Europe, and Rhineland. What surprised his friends was that Kimball received the Silver Star - one of the nation's top awards for gallantry in action - and an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters for completing 150 missions.

"I spent a lot of time with him and he never said anything about the decorations," recalled Fred Baumberger, who was involved in racing with Kimball and was an administrator of his estate. "When we found out about the Silver Star, we were hoping we could find it, but we didn't expect to. We searched his place and found it in the original box, and we found the Air Medal in another box."

Virgil Holdeman, another of Kimball's longtime friends who helped Baumberger with the estate, also was surprised.

"He was a quiet individual," Holdeman said. "He was the type of guy that if you knew him 40 years, you'd be surprised to find all this out. He was an out-and-out war hero. You don't get the Silver Star for playing games."

According to his military commendations, Kimball once was on patrol when his plane was caught in heavy anti-aircraft and small arms fire. Rather than leave the scene, the lieutenant sighted a line of 200 German vehicles and directed his own artillery battalion to destroy the enemy convoy.

Another time, Kimball's unit spent two days under heavy enemy fire. He volunteered to take to the air and locate the German batteries, which then were destroyed by American counter fire directed by Kimball.

"You could bring down those planes with a rifle," Holdeman said about the unarmed, unarmored, 65-horsepower Piper Cub. Books such as "Janey: A Little Plane in a Big War" and "Low and Slow" detail the dangers of being a spotter pilot. "The casualty rate was very high," added Holdeman, who served in the South Pacific during the war.

Five days after the Normandy invasion in June 1944, Kimball crossed the English Channel while on patrol and spotted a German mortar squad near a railroad line. The German unit believed it could not be observed by nearby British forces, and thought it was safe. Kimball's directions, however, resulted in a counterattack on the Germans that caused so many casualties the unit never fought again.

Kimball learned the result of that counterattack in an article he read several years after the war. In the article, the Germans said they never figured out how they were spotted.

"He never flew before he went into the service," Baumberger said. "He told me he wasn't interested in flying, but there was an opening for a pilot. He put in over 800 flying hours in the service. As far as I know, he never flew after he got back."

Baumberger, Holdeman, and Kimball were drawn together after the war by their interest in harness racing. A native of Harvard, Illinois, about 70 miles northwest of Chicago, Kimball worked as a dairy farmer and a part-time mailman until he got into racing in the 1950s. When the post office failed to give him time off to race, Kimball quit.

"I was a local vet in the area," said Holdeman, who is 79, and met Kimball in 1962. "I met him on the road one day. I saw harness racing in Jackson, Michigan. He had some luck with horses at the fairs. He told me he had a horse racing in Chicago and asked if I wanted to go along. We rode in the car together to Chicago for the race. Then I got the bug in me pretty bad. After that, we trained together. Nothing big time, but good times."

Baumberger, 82, owned horses trained by Kimball, who for 30 years lived at the Bond County Fairgrounds in Greenville, Illinois.

"He didn't have much income," said Baumberger, a retired beef and cattle farmer. "He leased a horse from me, and it raced pretty well for him. I told him if I ever sold the horse, he would get 25 percent. I sold a half-interest and brought him back a check. That's when he bought the trailer."

Even though Kimball had not trained horses since 1990, he remained at the fairgrounds.

"He didn't want to leave," Baumberger said. "He liked the horses. He had a bunch of dogs and cats around. And it was an advantage to the fairgrounds to have someone out there."

After his death, the Bond County Fair Board voted to honor Kimball with a memorial brick at the Bond County Veterans' Memorial. Donations also have been made to the Christian Harness Horsemen's Association in Kimball's memory.

"He was never married, kind of a loner," Baumberger said. "He was quiet, but well-known, too. He made a lot of friends in Greenville who weren't racehorse people. At first glance, you wouldn't think much of him. But he could talk to you about any subject."

Holdeman agreed. "He was very quiet, but very well-read," he said. "He amazed people when they got to know him, how well-read and well-versed he was on the world. He was always willing to give a hand or advice, too, whether it was with a harness horse or a riding horse."

Kimball got his final win as a driver with one of Baumberger's horses, Q View Mindy, at Fairmount Park in Collinsville, Illinois, on February 16, 1983. It was the last time Kimball, then 64, would drive in a race, though Baumberger offered additional opportunities.

"But that was it," Baumberger said. "He went out a winner." As those around him discovered, in more ways than one.