John Frum: The Bizarre Island Religion That Worships An American GI

Published August 13, 2017
Updated December 28, 2018

When American soldiers brought the modern world to remote islands in the Pacific, the cargo cults that worship John Frum were born.

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Famed science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This saying was proven true when previously uncontacted Pacific Islander tribes were awestruck by American technology after encountering the United States military during World War II.

As part of the U.S. campaign against Japan, American troops landed on hundreds of islands in the South Pacific. This was part of the tactic of "island hopping," in which American troops would focus on occupying small, lightly guarded but strategically important islands throughout the Pacific.

These islands would ultimately provide a path for the U.S. military to invade Japan, while bypassing many of the latter's fortified island positions. Avoiding these major islands meant that the U.S. came into contact with many island nations that had had little to no contact with the outside world ever before.

As the U.S. set up bases on these islands, previously uncontacted tribes witnessed, for the first time, things like airplanes, manufactured goods, modern medicine, guns, and canned food.

Soon, cults worshiping the goods and machines brought by American soldiers appeared in islands across the Pacific, including some islands of Vanuatu, Fiji, and New Guinea.

One such place was Tanna, a small island located in what is now Vanuatu. The island had been in contact with foreign nations previously, with their island being colonized by the British, but they had not been exposed to the mass-produced goods of the modern age.

When thousands of American G.I.s moved onto the island during World War II, the people of Tanna were shocked by them and the goods they brought with them. In response to the miraculous supplies held by these foreigners, the people of Tanna blended their previous beliefs, including a volcano god called Keraperamun and an anti-colonialist cult, with these new experiences and created what's known as the John Frum cargo cult.

The members of the John Frum cargo cult worship a god called John Frum, usually depicted by members of the cult as an American G.I. in uniform. Some believe that the name "John Frum" is a corruption of the larger phrase "John from America." Another cult on the same island worships a god called Tom Navy.

The members of the John Frum cargo cult did not see these foreign troops as a new god, but rather as an extension of their own ancestors or deities.

When World War II came to a close, and American soldiers went back home, the members of these cargo cults continued to worship these modern gods. Many of them even believed that these gods would return, and bring with them a greater bounty of cargo.

The members of the John Frum cargo cult saw their god as the one who brought the goods to their island, and as a messianic figure who would one day return, and bring these goods back with him.

The John Frum cargo cult built symbolic runways across their island complete with wooden air control towers to attract their god back to them. They also built life-size replicas of airplanes out of wood and straw.

In 1957, the John Frum movement developed the Tanna Army, a non-violent organization that engages in military parades to emulate the mannerisms of the American soldiers that had once been on the island. The members of this squad wear red, white, and blue and participate in a parade on February 15th every year.

Though most of these cargo cults have died off, as more and more people are exposed to the modern outside world, the John Frum cargo cult still survives. The origins of their god have become less important, and adherents are now mainly attracted to the movement because of the community that it has helped build over the past 70 years.

After learning about the John Frum cargo cults of the Pacific, read about seven bizarre cultural practices that still exist around the world today. Then, read up on six of the most remote places in all of human civilization. Finally, check out these five insane cults from around the world that are still active today.

Gabe Paoletti
Gabe Paoletti is a New York City-based writer and a former Editorial Intern at All That's Interesting. He holds a Bachelor's in English from Fordham University.
Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
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Paoletti, Gabe. "John Frum: The Bizarre Island Religion That Worships An American GI.", August 13, 2017, Accessed June 24, 2024.