The Americans’ munificence dazzled the men from Tanna, as did the sight of dark-skinned soldiers eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, living in similar huts and tents and operating the same high-tech equipment as white soldiers. “In kastom, people sit together to eat,” says Kirk Huffman, who was the curator of Vanuatu’s cultural center during his years in the island nation. “The missionaries had angered the Tannese by always eating separately.”
It seems this is when the legend of John Frum took on a decidedly American character. “John Frum appeared to us in Port-Vila,” Chief Kahuwya says, “and stayed with us throughout the war. John was dressed in all white, like American Navy men, and it was then we knew John was an American. John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo, like the Americans had in Vila.”
In 1943, the U.S. command, concerned about the movement’s growth, sent the USS Echo to Tanna with Maj. Samuel Patten on board. His mission was to convince John Frum followers that, as his report put it, “the American forces had no connection with Jonfrum.” He failed. At war’s end, the U.S. military unwittingly enhanced the legend of their endless supply of cargo when they bulldozed tons of equipment—trucks, jeeps, aircraft engines, supplies—off the coast of Espíritu Santo. During six decades in the shallows, coral and sand have obscured much of the watery grave of war surplus, but snorkelers can still see tires, bulldozers and even full Coke bottles. The locals wryly named the place Million Dollar Point.
After the war, when they returned home from Port-Vila to their huts, the Tanna men were convinced that John Frum would soon join them, and hacked a primitive airstrip out of the jungle in the island’s north to tempt the expected American planes from the skies. Across the South Pacific, thousands of other cargo cult followers began devising similar plans—even building bamboo control towers strung with rope and bamboo aerials to guide in the planes. In 1964, one cargo cult on New Hanover Island in Papua New Guinea offered the U.S. government $1,000 for Lyndon Johnson to come and be their paramount chief. But as the years passed with empty skies and seas, almost all the cargo cults disappeared, the devotees’ hopes crushed.
At Sulphur Bay the faithful never wavered. Each Friday afternoon, hundreds of believers stream across the ash plain below Yasur, coming to Lamaraka from villages all over Tanna. After the sun goes down and the men have drunk kava, the congregation gathers in and around an open hut on the ceremonial ground. As light from kerosene lamps flickers across their faces, they strum guitars and homemade ukuleles, singing hymns of John Frum’s prophecies and the struggles of the cult’s martyrs. Many carry the same plea: “We’re waiting in our village for you, John. When are you coming with all the cargo you promised us?”
Threaded among the singers’ perfect harmonies is a high-pitched Melanesian keening that hones each hymn with a yearning edge. I look around in vain for Chief Isaac until a senior man in the cult whispers that after drinking kava, Isaac has disappeared among the darkened trees to talk to John Frum. The weekly service doesn’t end until the sun comes back up, at seven the next morning.
The John Frum movement is following the classic pattern of new religions,” says anthropologist Huffman. Schisms split clumps of faithful from the main body, as apostates proclaim a new vision leading to sacrilegious variants on the creed’s core beliefs.
Which explains Prophet Fred, whose village, Ipikil, is nestled on Sulphur Bay. Daniel says that Prophet Fred split with Chief Isaac in 1999 and led half of the believer villages into his new version of the John Frum cult. “He had a vision while working on a Korean fishing boat in the ocean,” Daniel says. “God’s light came down on him, and God told him to come home and preach a new way.” People believed that Fred could talk to God after he predicted, six years ago, that Lake Siwi would break its natural dam and flood into the ocean. “The people living around the lake [on the beach beneath the volcano] moved to other places,” says Daniel. “Six months later, it happened.”
Then, almost two years ago, Prophet Fred’s rivalry with Chief Isaac exploded. More than 400 young men from the competing camps clashed with axes, bows and arrows and slingshots, burning down a thatched church and several houses. Twenty-five men were seriously injured. “They wanted to kill us, and we wanted to kill them,” a Chief Isaac loyalist says.
A few days before Lamakara’s annual John Frum celebration, I visit Prophet Fred’s village—only to find that he’s gone to the island’s northern tip to preach, most likely to avoid the celebrations. Instead, I meet his senior cleric, Maliwan Tarawai, a barefoot pastor carrying a well-thumbed Bible. “Prophet Fred has called his movement Unity, and he’s woven kastom, Christianity and John Frum together,” Tarawai tells me. The American messiah is little more than a figurehead in Fred’s version, which bans the display of foreign flags, including Old Glory, and forbids any talk of cargo.