Who was John Frum? To Melanesians on the South Pacific island of Tanna tradition holds that John Frum prophesied Americans would arrive on the island and shower them with all good things. Though it’s unclear whether John Frum was a real person, in the midst of the Pacific War in 1942 American soldiers did arrive as predicted. And indeed they brought with them wondrous cargo never before seen by the Tannese, reinforcing their beliefs and propelling the prophecy into a religion. While filming the documentary Waiting for John, director Jessica Sherry immersed herself in Tanna’s culture and traditions to shed light on the “cargo cult.” Military History recently spoke with Sherry about the John Frum movement, its lasting legacy on Tanna and the unwitting role the U.S. military played in reinforcing its beliefs.
‘John Frum had promised that Americans would bring good things to the people of Tanna and would be their brothers in the fight for freedom’
What inspired you to film Waiting for John?
I thought the general idea of cargo cults was surreal, and the specifics were even more fascinating. The movement is an interesting microcosm, an example of how and why religion works, and I thought that by telling the story of this relatively recent and extreme belief system, the film could reveal some of the universal tenets of all religions.
What are the origins of the Frum legend?
Oral history on Tanna Island says John Frum predicted the arrival of the Americans as early as 1940, before Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war in the Pacific, with some stories even dating to 1938. The first written account of the movement was in 1941, when British government agent James Nicol wrote about strange kava ceremonies and many pigs being killed in the name of John Frum. It’s difficult to know for sure if America was mentioned in the first prophecies in the 1940s, or if John’s predictions and identity evolved with the religion.
What happened when Americans’ arrived in 1942?
John Frum had promised that Americans would bring good things to the people of Tanna and would be their brothers in the fight for freedom. The American military brought a miraculous amount of cargo to many remote islands in the South Pacific—refrigerators, canned food, planes, trucks—all technologically advanced goods the islanders had never seen, especially in such vast quantities. The arrival of the Americans fulfilled John’s prophecy and changed the balance of power in the region, undermining European authority and empowering the native peoples.
How did the war affect the Tannese?
In 1942 military bases were built on the neighboring islands, so many of the young men on Tanna waited on the beach to enlist and support the Americans. The Americans paid well, and the men saw an opportunity, but I’m sure some of the islanders just wanted to find out if the rumors of miraculous cargo were true.
Many accounts say the Americans treated the islanders with respect, especially compared to how they were treated by Europeans. The islanders worked side by side with the soldiers, many of whom were black—the people of Tanna were amazed and proud to see black Americans working with white Americans. Because of all this there was a pro-American sentiment on many of the islands, especially Tanna.
How did Tanna’s cargo cult differ from others in the Pacific?
Many cargo cults popped up around the South Pacific, especially in Fiji, Papua New Guinea and in the New Hebrides (present-day Vanuatu).
Tanna was at a particular breaking point in the 1940s, when the native people were looking for a way to resist colonial repression, band together to seek freedom and protect their traditional culture. The John Frum movement had strong leaders and resisted the colonial powers. This tumultuous situation gave people a reason to believe, beyond just spiritual curiosity or worldly desires. Many religions that have staying power were created in the face of oppression and the need for uprising.
Why does the John Frum movement endure?
The ancestors of today’s village leaders went to prison during the colonial period because of their beliefs. The current elders remember their heritage, and the religion remains the most important thing to them. The John Frum movement represents the way in which the indigenous people reclaimed their identity and power, which has led to the survival of the community and its traditional beliefs. Though it may seem a contradiction to believe in a brotherhood with America and preserve traditional customs, there is a partnership there in the minds of John Frum believers.
How has the movement changed since the war?
The village of Lamakara is still a very traditional place, but today most people know how trucks or airplanes are made. Many people have cell phones and know that the Internet exists; their understanding of the world has evolved. They hope for help from America, and they still believe in the brotherhood between America and Tanna.
It’s also much smaller now and is in danger of fading away. People now understand where the cargo came from and have more outside influences and other options. Younger generations often pull away from tradition, and that’s true for the John Frum movement, too.
How many followers remain?
It’s hard to say. There are about 250 people who live in the John Frum village of Lamakara and actively practice the religion. Others live in nearby villages and visit Lamakara every Friday night to show their devotion. I can’t give an exact number of remaining believers, but I know it’s much less than it was in the 1990s, when there were more than 5,000 active members.
Describe a typical John Frum ceremony.
Every Friday evening people gather for a celebration. Believers walk from surrounding villages to visit Lamakara, and at sundown they gather around the town square, singing songs about the movement’s beliefs, its history and its leaders. Women dance in hula skirts in an outer circle, and men dance in the inner circle to the sounds of guitars. This celebration goes on until sunrise and truly is a spiritual experience.
Every February 15 members celebrate John Frum Day, the day on which the original leaders first raised the American flag. A ceremonial march—to show their respect for America and their brotherhood—is performed by the young men of the village, and they paint USA in red on their chests and march in military formations their grandfathers saw during World War II. The men carry bamboo sticks painted with red tips to represent the U.S. soldiers’ rifles.
The people believe such demonstrations may convince America to return with their cargo or at least their support for the movement. Their current leader, Chief Isaak, would very much like to visit the White House, but he’s still waiting for an invitation.
Was John Frum a vision, an idol or an actual person?
Believers maintain he is a spiritual being. The men on Tanna drink a lot of kava, and visions are common. Maybe someone came up with the idea that people needed to rise up against the colonialist rulers, and good things would happen if they did. John Frum was the figure that represented this message, and it took hold.
As time went on, the figure of John Frum evolved with the culture’s needs. When U.S. forces arrived during the war with all their cargo and equipment, it seemed miraculous. The islanders hadn’t heard of refrigerators or canned food before, so they believed the spirits must be involved. I think John Frum became American right around then. MH