The South Pacific island cult who worship the spirit of an American World War II soldier (in the hope he'll return with Coca-Cola, TVs and medicine)

Mail, UK/February 11, 2016

By Steve Trask

Every February a cult gathers at the base of an active volcano in the South Pacific in a religious tribute to a dead American soldier.

The elders wear American military uniforms jangling with medals, the rest paint ‘USA’ in red paint on their bare chests.

They march around a rickety pole in military formation before raising the American flag.

They are the followers of John Frum and on February 15 every year they pay homage in this way to a divine spirit ‘more powerful than Jesus’.

The followers of John Frum live in a small village at the base of Mount Yasur, an active volcano on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

To them John Frum is a god-like spirit most commonly depicted as an American soldier from the World War II.

The cult believes the almighty John Frum will one day return to Tanna bringing wealth, good luck and gifts from America.

The World War II had an enormous and positive impact on Vanuatu and the people of Tanna.

The sleepy island heaved with some 300,000 American servicemen preparing for the brewing Pacific conflict with Japan.

New airstrips and hospitals were built and the islanders prospered from the flood of food and supplies.

The name ‘John Frum’, or ‘John From’, comes from the way the soldiers would introduce themselves: ‘Hi, I’m John from New York’ or, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m John from Miami’.

When the war ended and these John Frums left Vanuatu, the bounty of food and cargo dried up.

Recognising that the soldiers were responsible for the island’s brief wealth, a large portion of the islanders took to worship in the hope they would return.

They ploughed imitation runaways and built ramshackle observation towers to try and coax back their departed luck.

Soon they were also donning discarded military uniforms and raising the American flag in increasingly elaborate rituals.

Since its beginnings in the 1940s the John Frum ‘cargo cult’ has swollen to number as many as 6,000 believers, according to the BBC.

In 2006 a reporter from Smithsonian Magazine travelled to Vanuatua to speak to the cult and stay in their village.

John Frum’s then leader, a man known as Chief Isaac, explained that the cult was both a spiritual and cultural movement.

He said: ‘If we keep praying to John, he’ll come back with plenty of cargo.

‘John Frum came to help us get back our traditional customs, our kava drinking, our dancing, because the missionaries and colonial government were destroying our culture.

‘John is a spirit. He knows everything. He’s even more powerful than Jesus.’

Another village elder told the Smithsonian that John Frum would one day return to the island bringing ‘wonderful’ things from America.

He said: ‘John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him.

‘Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.’

Vanuatu was settled by British and French missionaries in the late 19th Century and the two nations ruled together from 1906.

By the late 1930s their colonial rule was seen by many on Tanna as increasingly oppressive as it slowly smothered their ancient traditions.

Anthropologist Ralph Reganvalu said that John Frum emerged in this context as a ‘cultural preservation movement’ which revived many dying customs.

He told the BBC: ‘There was a whole period in history known as Tanna Law where the missionaries put in this series of rules about what people weren't supposed to do and the movement emerged because of this oppression.’

Ben Bohane is a journalist and photographer who lives in Vanuatu and has covered the Pacific for more than 25 years.

The popularity of John Frum reflected the intense spirituality which ran like blood through the people of Vanuatu, he told MailOnline.

He said: ‘Every single person in this region lives in a constant spirit world.

‘Everyone believes in sorcery and the spirits of their ancestors. Some of them take it to more extreme lengths. But that’s just the people.’

Mr Bohane said the people of Tanna were grateful for the way the cult had helped to preserve the island’s identity.

He said: ‘They are totally part of the culture. They were the champions of custom because they rejected Christianity.

‘They are respected on that front. It’s a very mainstream thing. In times of peace they might be fringe. But in times of conflict they become this lightning rod for dissent.

‘They’ve learnt to just get on with things and not wait for the government to help them. At least one or two of the members in Parliament are representing the community.’

Mr Bohane said the John Frum cult kept it itself at the base of Mt Yasur, where followers gathered in worship every Friday.

He said: ‘They pretty much have their own village at the base of the volcano. You might get one or two tourists who come along to the flag raising every week.

‘Every Friday they raise the American flag, sometimes it’s the Aborigine flag and sometimes it’s the French flag. That’s their weekly event.

‘And on February 15 they celebrate John Frum Day. They have a bit of theatre and a bit of dance and that’s their big annual celebration.’

A spokeswoman for the Vanutau Tourism Office told MailOnline that the John Frum cult was friendly and open to visitors.

She said: ‘[They] are typically open to visitors, and welcome them for their religious activities.

‘For example, John Frum followers sing and dance with tourists on Friday evenings at Sulphur Bay.

‘Tourists go to Tanna for the volcano, but when they’re on the island they can go to the John Frum village every Friday and see the cult and dances that take place.’

Where is Vanatu? 

Vanuatu is a nation in the South Pacific made up of about 80 separate islands. It is about 1,000 miles east of Australia.

The capital of Vanuatu is Port Vila, located on the island of Efate. Vanuatu’s population numbers about 270,000.

Vanuatu was first discovered by Melanesian settlers, with some estimates dating their arrival around 1300 BC.

British and French missionaries began colonising the islands in the late 18th Century. From 1906 until 1980 the British and French jointly governed Vanuatu. In 1980 Vanuatu claimed its independence.

The island of Tanna, home to John Frum, has a population of about 29,000. One of Tanna’s main features is Mount Yasur, an active volcano in Sulphur Bay.

Other tourist attractions on Tanna include the cultural villages, underwater caves and wild horses.

The sleepy island heaved with some 300,000 American servicemen preparing for the brewing Pacific conflict with Japan.

New airstrips and hospitals were built and the islanders prospered from the flood of food and supplies.

The cargo cults of Tanna

John Frum is not the only cargo cult in the Pacific and is one of three living on the island of Tanna. 

Although each cult began under similar circumstances, there are stark differences in their rituals and beliefs.

The Tom Navy cargo cult is similar to John Frum in that it worships a long-departed American naval officer who lived on the island during World War II. 

Tom Navy is believed to be Thomas Beatty, a missionary from Mississippi who served in the Navy during the war.

The Prince Philip Movement began in the late 1950s or early 1960s and believes that the Queen’s husband is a divine spirit. One explanation for the movement is that islanders saw how much respect colonial officials gave to the Queen, and concluded her husband must be a powerful man. 

The cult was brought to Prince Philip’s attention in the 1980s. He has since sent them photographs and met members of the movement when they travelled to England.

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