In the morning heat on a tropical island halfway across the world from the United States, several dark-skinned men—clad in what look to be U.S. Army uniforms—appear on a mound overlooking a bamboo-hut village. One reverently carries Old Glory, precisely folded to reveal only the stars. On the command of a bearded “drill sergeant,” the flag is raised on a pole hacked from a tall tree trunk. As the huge banner billows in the wind, hundreds of watching villagers clap and cheer.
From This Story
Chief Isaac Wan, a slight, bearded man in a blue suit and ceremonial sash, leads the uniformed men down to open ground in the middle of the village. Some 40 barefoot "G.I.’s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.
This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”
The island’s John Frum movement is a classic example of what anthropologists have called a “cargo cult”—many of which sprang up in villages in the South Pacific during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of American troops poured into the islands from the skies and seas. As anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” The locals don’t know where the foreigners’ endless supplies come from and so suspect they were summoned by magic, sent from the spirit world. To entice the Americans back after the war, islanders throughout the region constructed piers and carved airstrips from their fields. They prayed for ships and planes to once again come out of nowhere, bearing all kinds of treasures: jeeps and washing machines, radios and motorcycles, canned meat and candy.
But the venerated Americans never came back, except as a dribble of tourists and veterans eager to revisit the faraway islands where they went to war in their youth. And although almost all the cargo cults have disappeared over the decades, the John Frum movement has endured, based on the worship of an American god no sober man has ever seen.
Many Americans know Vanuatu from the reality TV series “Survivor,” though the episodes shot there hardly touched on the Melanesian island nation’s spectacular natural wonders and fascinating, age-old cultures. Set between Fiji and New Guinea, Vanuatu is a Y-shaped scattering of more than 80 islands, several of which include active volcanoes. The islands were once home to fierce warriors, among them cannibals. Many inhabitants still revere village sorcerers, who use spirit-possessed stones in magic rituals that can lure a new lover, fatten a pig or kill an enemy.
Americans with longer memories remember Vanuatu as the New Hebrides—its name until its independence from joint British and French colonial rule in 1980. James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, which spawned the musical South Pacific, grew out of his experiences as an American sailor in the New Hebrides in World War II.
My own South Pacific experience, in search of John Frum and his devotees, begins when I board a small plane in Vanuatu’s capital, Port-Vila. Forty minutes later, coral reefs, sandy beaches and green hills announce Tanna Island, about 20 miles long and 16 miles at its widest point, with a population of around 28,000. Climbing into an ancient jeep for the drive to Lamakara, which overlooks Sulphur Bay, I wait while Jessel Niavia, the driver, starts the vehicle by touching together two wires sticking out from a hole under the dashboard.
As the jeep rattles up a steep slope, the narrow trail slicing through the jungle’s dense green weave of trees and bushes, Jessel tells me that he is the brother-in-law of one of the cult’s most important leaders, Prophet Fred—who, he adds proudly, “raised his wife from the dead two weeks ago.”
When we reach the crest of a hill, the land ahead falls away to reveal Yasur, Tanna’s sacred volcano, a few miles to the south, its ash-coated slopes nudging the shoreline at Sulphur Bay. Dark smoke belches from its cone. “‘Yasur’ means God in our language,” Jessel murmurs. “It’s the house of John Frum.”