The Post-War Cargo Cult of John Frum

The Post-War Cargo Cult of John Frum

War has many horrific sides, from the loss of human life, both soldiers and civilians, to the destruction left behind stretching across war-torn landscapes. Wars let us see the extreme costs, not just with lives lost, but financially as well. However one thing that most people never see is how this simple act of supplying our troops with much needed cargo can drastically change the lives of local inhabitants that live in the areas surrounding our wartime military bases.

Republic of Vanuatu

Republic of Vanuatu – image courtesy of
Phillip Capper

Off of the North East coast of Australia, on the 25 mile long island of Tanna in the Republic of Vanuatu, about 1,000 local people were recruited to work on a US military base, Efate during the World War 2. During this time these people saw and experienced things that they never dreamed existed. Exposure to things like hospitals, air strips, roads, steel, canned foods, radio, weapons, clothing, and tents forever changed the lives of the residents of the Pacific island.

A new lifestyle descended around them from the air and by sea. Cargo planes and ships brought unfathomable amounts of goods and wondrous machines. The islanders had never seen such a wealth of food and supplies which seemingly came out of nowhere on planes and ships. This cargo became a thing to be celebrated, even worshiped.

After the War

When the war ended, military bases were abandoned and the seemingly endless flow of life-altering cargo ceased. The inhabitants of Tanna Island, who had been enjoying things like medicine, candy, Coca-Cola, and technology, were suddenly left without all of these things. They experienced a glimpse of the American life and then it was gone. They were left with their own customs and previous lifestyle, longing for the cargo that had so drastically changed their lives.

People of Vanuatu

People of Vanuatu – image courtesy of Graham Crumb

Yet, the people of Tanna would not be discouraged. In an effort to summon the supply of cargo to them once again, they worked as they had seen the US soldiers work. They began to clear their own landing strips so the cargo planes would have a place to land. They built piers to beckon cargo ships to their island. They constructed control towers, carved wooden radios and headsets, and put up red crosses around the island.

The gap in their lives left by the departure of the US soldiers and their cargo was filled with the birth of a belief. The belief that John Frum, likely a symbol of the American Soldier, would return with planes and ships full of the cargo that they longed for.

Priests and profits rose in the cult, foretelling the return of John Frum and declared that until the return of their savior, they were to return to their local customs, rid themselves of material things and throw their money into the ocean.

Today’s John Frum Cult

John Frum ceremonial flag raising

John Frum ceremonial flag raising – image courtesy of Charmaine Tham

The John Frum Cult has continued for over 75 years. The native people of Tanna are still awaiting the return of John Frum and all the wealth he will supply them with by delivering cargo. On February 15th each year the islanders celebrate “John Frum Day,” a day when they dress as soldiers and adorn themselves with “USA” painted on their chests and clothing. A replica of the American flag flies high on a flagpole. The Tanna Army, as they call themselves, marches in the shadow of the island’s active volcano, Yasur, believed to be the home of John Frum.

In the 1970s, the John Frum movement became a political party. Residents of Tanna shunned the Christian faith and customs and continued to worship and wait for John Frum’s return. When asked why they’ve waited so long for their savior to return, they scoff and point out that the Christian faith has waited thousands of years for their savior and they still have hope.

The cross of John Frum

The cross of John Frum – image courtesy of Tim Ross

To this day, the residents of Tanna still celebrate John Frum day believing that he will someday return with cargo beyond their wildest dreams. In the morning, they raise the flag, then hundreds of followers dance and sing about how the American soldiers came and brought the cargo that forever changed their lives.

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