Saints at War
Virgil N. Kovalenko

Editors Note: “This excerpt is taken from the book Saints at War: Korea and Vietnam. You can read other stories from this book about Joe J. Christensen, Roger McLaughlin , Richard D. Wilson and Terry Jorgensen that tell of other experiences in war.
Virgil Kovalenko.

As a native of Arizona, Virgil served in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars. During his Vietnam tour he was the political warfare advisor and community relations advisor assigned to the Political Warfare Division, Vietnamese Air Force Logistics Command. At that time he was also the group leader of the Bien Hoa LDS Servicemen’s Group. Currently he is a Spanish professor and resides in Utah. He was a founding member of VASAA (Veterans’ Association for Service Activities Abroad), the LDS veterans’ association from 1982-2000. VASAA officially terminated all humanitarian projects and programs in a formal ceremony at Fort Douglass on June 6, 1998. Two years later, all legal activities ended and the organization was disbanded, having accomplished its major objectives.

A beautiful day for the most part, it is bright and hot. As I make my usual routine, I checked out the air force bus from the motor pool. We’ve taken to calling it the Mormon Battalion Bus Line on Sundays. It is kind of funny, in a way, because when I am driving, the other LDS men provide a buffer from the catcalls and comments of soldiers we pick up during our rounds. When those men complain and want to know why they can’t smoke or swear on the bus, our fellows tell them it’s a chapel bus for the day. “Oh,” say some, “is this the God Squad?”

Priesthood had seventeen present. Warren Soong conducted. As we were starting, Charles Merill, the district mission president and Wayne Heffords, a Seventy and district counselor drove up. They both addressed us and left some pamphlets with us along with more copies of the Book of Mormon. Sunday school saw twenty-two present including Phuong and Ky, our investigators. We had some kind of hassle with the Vietnamese gate guards, again, to get Phuong onto the base. This is not unusual, but it does bother us somewhat. I guess they think she’s a prostitute and don’t understand her desire to attend religious services with the Americans. Our sacrament meeting speakers were John Walton and Paul Simkins. John spoke of what the words of “Come, Come Ye Saints” mean to him, and Paul spoke of the meaning of Christmas to him, and he related the story of the Lord’s birth to his understanding. The singing tonight was rousing and wonderful. It really must have been something because there were quite a number of Vietnamese airmen standing outside the windows and doorways listening and watching. With Brothers Chuck Lindquist and Nicholas North in the music department, we surely have some good singing going on now.

We had to adjourn quickly because of artillery activity. While driving on the army side of this big base complex and making the rounds of the smaller camps, we heard and saw some rockets explode on the air force base. The sirens began screaming and people were running everywhere. What a heck of a position to be in, driving a big bus-a great big target, friends, and full of the Saints. Peter Bell was standing behind me and calling out the names of the camps. When a man would stand up, Peter yelled, “Stand in the door,” and when I came skidding into the area, Peter put his foot on the man’s rear and pushed as he hollered, “Airborne!” I drove fast and with the lights off because of the sirens and rockets. I quickly got everyone back to his hooch or unit, in a driving rain, no less with lots of lightning. I made a run for the guard shack or gate leading from the army to the air force side of the base. The guard stopped me there, one corporal with his M16 at port arms. I yelled at him to get out of the way but he told me in no uncertain terms and with much profanity to move my blankety-blank bus off from his road. I protested again, and he leveled his gun at the bus and me. Nothing to do but to drive off the pavement, down a gully, and into plain sight in a field, which I was certain was mined. So there we were, in the rain, with lightning, rockets exploding, and artillery blasting, and flare guns going off near us. The guys at the guard shack set up a mortar and were firing from that position, which was interesting for us because of the concussion effect, especially in the rain.

I don’t think I was frightened for my safety or of Merwin Ruesh who was on the bus with me. Peter is a seasoned Green Beret so there was no worry about him. I was concerned, however, about getting the bus back to the motor pool. What was amazing to me was the calm which came over me. When Merwin asked me what we were going to do, I told him, “Well, we can’t go anywhere for now, so just start compiling the group reports for the district.” About that time, I sensed something extraordinary happening. It seemed that from behind the rear of the bus a giant, transparent bubble came over the top of the bus and closed in directly in front of us. We could hear and see everything that was going on. I watched a VC [Viet Cong] rocket explode inside one of the revetments where the F-5 aircraft are sheltered. Our side of the base was taking a pounding. About twenty minutes later, the all clear sounded and we took off in a hurry. I backed the bus up onto the road, not daring to attempt turning around. Just as I fired up the engine, the bubble I saw retreated back over the bus and disappeared. I even looked in the rear and side view mirrors to see if I could watch it. It just disappeared! During that time we had waited, I had given Merwin the minutes of our firebase trip, which I instructed him should be entered in the group’s history. The time in the bubble was well spent, if a little on edge.

A few thoughts reflecting on that experience. After I dropped off the two Green Berets at their camp, I drove the bus back to the motor pool. I discovered that the one rocket we saw hit and blow something up, actually hit one of the buildings in the motor pool and damaged a bunch of equipment. Later, I heard that other rockets landed in the perimeter somewhere. What was startling to me was that if I had driven immediately to the motor pool, that rocket would have hit the bus because of where I had to park it. I haven’t heard of any casualties as yet from all that. But, with all the scare and noise, I can’t recall feeling fear of injury or death, only concern for the safety of those on the bus and the property entrusted to me. I wonder whether that would be the case if I were directly involved in a bombardment. I know that those mortars that hit us Friday night, came very close within seventy-five yards or so. That is like the old saying, “A miss is as good as a mile.” Well, at least my history will show I was here during a bunch of this nonsense, which men have dreamed up against each other. This can be the crucible in which a man discovers where his treasures lie. And though I am here, I feel the Lord’s comfort. I am not too worthy of much, but I am confident that He will look after us since we are doing His work. That’s why I didn’t fear too much tonight for our safety. Foolhardy, ye critics? I say no, because His power does exist. How else can I explain our Bus in the Bubble?”

* * * * *

December 9-Steve and I were driving in my jeep to the army side when another jeep passed us going the other way . . . toward the air force base. One the front of the jeep was written the name “Mahonri Moriancumr.” I yelled at Steve that we ought to follow that one since it was obviously Mormon. After dropping him off and heading back to my side, I passed that jeep again, only this time it was caught in the lineup waiting to be checked through the gate. I quickly pulled off the road and ran over to the driver (who was smoking a cancer stick) and asked who the jeep was assigned to. I guess they are used to weird people asking about that name, so he smiled and gave me the name of Major Schultz or something like that at Long Binh and his phone number. I shall have to call him, I thought to myself. And today I did just that . . . he laughed and said he surely does get some questions but always draws out the Mormons who recognize the name as that of the Brother of Jared. Crazy business, this Mormonism. I remember that Tad Derreck’s F-100 aircraft had “The Mormon Meteor” painted on its nose.

* * * * *

John Parr was an American Air Force captain, aeronautical engineer. His wife had joined the Church in Ohio and had sent a missionary referral card for her husband. That card was sent up to our group. It sat in my desk drawer for several weeks and every time I’d open the desk as I was working, that card would yell at me, “You have to do something, you have to contact him.” Well, I finally did and his story is one of the fun experiences in Vietnam. After having Thanksgiving dinner in 1971 together, we had a discussion about the Church. The first two hours were spent in his response to my asking him, “How come your wife came to join the Mormon Church?” The second two hours were spent with him answering my question, “Well, what’s your hangup with the Mormons?”

He started telling me it was all centered on his worry about a living prophet and on how Joseph Smith could have been called as a prophet. I responded, “Well, what does it say in Amos 3:7 about prophets?” without being able to remember the scripture. I was shocked that he knew it immediately, and then I found out that his father was a Methodist chaplain, a full colonel in the Army. This kid had grown up with the scriptures and so those two hours were spent going through the scriptures to show that the Lord can call and does call prophets in every age and then. Yesterday, today, and forever, why can’t we have a prophet today? At the end of that particular phrase he stopped and looked at me and said, “That’s the most eloquent thing I’ve ever heard.”

It was about midnight and time to go home. I had to go across the base which was very dangerous. Once the sun went down in Vietnam it was black, and Americans were counseled to say in their bunkers, to not be out roaming around because that is usually when the Viet Cong would start throwing rockets at us. We had to go clear across the base, and he said he’d walk with me. I didn’t want him to because I didn’t want to put him at risk, but he still had questions so we walked across the base over to my place. As we went inside the Spirit told me, “You need to close this day with prayer.” So I said, “John would you mind if we end the day with prayer?”

He said, “No I think that’s appropriate.”

We knelt down on the cold concrete floor in my room and I asked him if he would mind saying the prayer, which he did. At the end of that prayer, I put my arm around his shoulders and said, “John, that’s the most eloquent thing I’ve ever heard.” So we shook hands and embraced. And just as he was going out I said, “Well John, you’ve heard the truth tonight. Your spirit has heard the testimony of the Holy Ghost.”

He looked me right in the eye and said, “Yes. I know.”

I said, “Well that means then that you’re responsible for what you’ve heard and you have to make a decision, don’t you?”

He said, “Yep. I’ll let you know.”

He had to go off on TDY [temporary duty] and go up country to do some evaluations of aircraft that had been shot. About a week later, he called me from somewhere in the country. Because the phone lines in Vietnam were cross-circuited, so you could hear six or seven conversations going on from everywhere, he simply said, “Virgil, this is John. Let’s do it.”

I said, “Okay, Saturday morning at the swimming pool.” He came back to the base and I put the word out to the group. Several of us went to the swimming pool at six o’clock in the morning, and we baptized him.

Our district president felt that anybody who was baptized could be given the priesthood, but he had to come up through the different offices so he could learn what the different offices were. I complained and asked, “Why can’t we just ordain him a priest for heaven’s sakes.”

Virgil Kovalenko and later John Parr, from the Bien Hoa group, would check out a chapel bus each Sunday morning, afternoon, and evening in order to drive and pick up anyone in the outlying camps who wanted to attend Church services. The word spread quickly that if you wanted to go to church you should be on the road when a large, blue air force bus came by. Pictured is the “Mormon Battalion” bus line (June 1971) with the Nguyen Ngoc Thach family on the right. Virgil Kovalenko is in the bus doorway. Nguyen Ngoc Thach and three of his children, Huong, Nga and Vu are pictured. On Vu’s eighth birthday, his father had just been ordained a priest and given permission to baptize his son, which was done at the base swimming pool.

“No, he has to learn.” So after the baptism we went over to the little chapel and we confirmed him. We gave him the Aaronic Priesthood and ordained him a deacon. The next day was Sunday so he passed the sacrament. The next week, we ordained him a teacher so that he could prepare the sacrament. The week after that we ordained him a priest so he could bless the sacrament.

We asked John if he had told his family that he had joined the Church. He said no, that he said he was going to tell them when he went home for R&R [rest and recuperation] to see his family for a week. On the Sunday that John arrived, his wife heard noises in the kitchen and went out to see her husband dressed in a suit and tie, banging pots and pans and fixing himself some breakfast. She was used to him sleeping in on Sunday and then watching football all day while she took the children to LDS services. She asked him where he was going. He replied, “Where else should I go on a Sunday morning? I’m going to priesthood.”

Her mouth hit the floor and she said, “What?”

He said, “Well, yeah, didn’t you know? I was baptized in Vietnam.”

Their little five-year-old boy who was in the kitchen blurted out, “Oh goody, daddy, does that mean we can be a forever family now?” To me that is one of those joyous missionary things that came out of Vietnam. This is the brotherhood of the priesthood.

Taken from Virgil Nicholas Kovalenko, (1934), Vietnam Journal and Group Leader’s Desk Calendar, 1971 May-1972 February, MS 17326, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and also some excerpts taken from an interview with Dennis Wright.

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