During the Second World War, a group of indigenes in the remote Island of Vanuatu spotted a plane airdrop daily essentials and started a religion based on the worship of cargo aeroplanes.
Discovered by the Australian government patrols in 1946, anthropologists refer to it as a unique branch of ‘cargo cultism’.
Cargo cultism, anthropologists describe, is the belief that soldiers who came to their aid during the Second World War and airdropped cargos containing essentials such as televisions, refrigerators, iced Coca-Cola, sweets, radios and medicine are spiritual entities sent to save them and will make a second coming.
For people who were not aware of the existence of other tribes and technological advancement, they believed that whatever was airdropped was a holy gift.
The aeroplanes who brought in cargos dropped them in the military airbases meant for the Japanese and the Americans. The soldiers, in turn, shared some with the host community, Tannas. As they shared their goods, they became popular among the islanders who had not seen white skin-colours.
The popularity of this incident saw the rise of cults: the ‘Tom Navy’ which has a US Navy officer as the deity; the Prince Philip cult which believes that the Duke is a mountain spirit awaiting his messianic crowning and John Frum, an unknown US soldier.
Of all cargo cults, John Frum is the most popular. The name John Frum, or John From, comes from the way the soldiers who arrived there introduced themselves.
Examples abound such as ‘Hi, I’m John from New York’ or, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m John from Miami’.
Another story has it that there was a certain ‘John From America’ who divinely made several trips to their island. According to this cult, the mysterious ‘John Frum’ also has various skin colours causing him to sometimes visit as a black man and other times, white.
Despite these variations, it is clear that John Frum has been divinely ordained to grant the people of Tanna, independence.
To show his sacredness, the people rever a volcanic mountain called Yasur meaning “God” which is the house of John Frum. It is from the Yasur that John Frum advises and calls to them to visit him so he can teach me the ways of the holy. He has also given his prophets the power to perform miracles including raising the dead.
Are the gods angry?
The end of the war saw the end of the cargos and the abandonment of the military airbases on the island. To revive hope, some members of the community arose with claims that their ancestors arrived at a conclusion to deliver the cargos themselves.
But to get these divine gifts, the people of Tanna would have to dress like the US soldiers, perform parade ground drills and create tools from wood such as headphones, guns and signal. This belief holds that when the cargo pilots see them, they would drop other cargos.
Dr Richard Feynman, an astrophysicist, described the cult in a paper:
“During the war, the cargo religion saw aeroplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas, he’s the controller and they wait for the aeroplanes to land.”
Their strategy has only managed to attract tourists.
John Frum’s Return
In the light of the second coming, every Feb 15, is recognised as John Frum Day. On this day, they paint their chest in US colours and perform military parade drills while the US flag flies high. Like other religions, it is not known what year he will return.
But when he does, he will come with cars, more medicine, iced coca-cola and other essentials.
Although some have embraced Christianity, it is their belief that John From will still answer their prayers because he is more powerful than Jesus.