“THESE I SAW…AND I WAS SURPRISED TO SEE THEM: plenty of people; the ships on the sea, the aeroplanes, the motor cars and jeeps, the ship [that] goes in sea and land, all sorts of launches, all sorts of different languages, all sorts of men, white and brown and black.” So reported one islander in the Solomons. By early 1943 the Americans had driven the Japanese from Guadalcanal and the southern Solomons, with the help of locals. The islanders had scouted and spied for the Americans, guided their downed pilots through enemy territory, carried supplies to GI positions, and generally joined the Allied cause.
The locals were impressed with American inclusiveness and generosity—in stark contrast to Japanese brutality—and with the mounds of American “cargo.” The GIs brought with them an immensity of things—not just the ships, jeeps, and planes, but radios, watches, iceboxes, and candy bars and cigarettes that they shared with the locals. In general, the Americans had an ease about them that was a far cry from the superiority of the British, who had colonized the islands earlier in the century. And the black and brown servicemen wore the same clothes, ate the same food, used the same equipment as the white troops—unheard of in the islanders’ experience. “For 40 years the English had used social aloofness to impress the natives,” observed writer James Michener, who served in the Pacific. Then, “in one afternoon the Americans did a better job [of making an impression] with a Texas Negro driving a bulldozer.”
Despite the havoc of war, the Solomon Islanders found those years heady times, saturated with a new abundance. Then the war was over and the Americans, with their mounds of cargo and good-paying jobs, were gone, and a postwar depression descended. The locals compensated, as they had historically in hard times—they embraced a new belief that offered new hope: The Americans and their plentiful cargo would return. Lookouts were posted to scan the horizon for American ships, and fires were kept burning at night to guide the ships to shore. One missionary reported seeing 43 empty storehouses “sited and completed with military precision—a very neat, workmanlike job”—all waiting for the coming cargo.
The islanders flocked to the Americans for the wages they paid and their welcoming acceptance of the locals
North of the Solomons in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), where the Americans had established a large base, a similar cult flourished, revolving around a figure known as John Frum. What exactly inspired the name remains a mystery, but it is believed that John Frum first appeared on the island of Tanna at the end of the 1930s, “a mysterious little man with bleached hair, high-pitched voice and clad in a coat with shining buttons…appearing at night, in the faint light of a fire, before men under the influence of kava.” He was believed to be a manifestation of the god of Tanna’s highest peak, Mount Tukosmeru, though in fact he was a New Hebridean in his 30s named Manehevi. Only native men, it was said, could see him, but his exhortations and prophecies reached everyone’s ears: He would level the island’s volcanoes and create fertile fields. The islanders would no longer be exploited by their European overlords. Sickness, old age, and the need to toil would be banished, and John Frum would shower gifts on his people—metal houses, clothes, food.
Among his other divine abilities, John Frum was a master of planes. And in fact, the skies above the island began to roar as Allied forces swarmed into the New Hebrides. One man claimed that Mount Tukosmeru was filled with American soldiers and that on a given day, the mountain would open and the soldiers would spill forth to support John Frum. Word also spread that John Frum’s three sons, “half castes” with “black hair,” had come from America and would rule as kings. By then, concerned white authorities on Tanna had arrested the original John Frum leaders, including Manehevi, but that did not end the movement. A new manifestation of Frum appeared—this time a young islander named Neloiag, who proclaimed himself king of America and of Tanna.
By 1942 the Americans had arrived in force, and on the island of Espiritu Santo and in and around the city of Port-Vila on Efate, Quonset huts sprouted, and hospitals, movie theaters, and a PX swung into operation. The islanders flocked to the Americans for the wages they paid and their welcoming acceptance of the locals. And as in the Solomons, the New Hebrideans were heartened to see that black soldiers seemed to enjoy the same privileges as whites.
While the pro-American sentiments suited the U.S. commanders just fine, the John Frum–U.S. connection began to worry them. In 1943 they attempted to quell such ideas and convince the locals that the American forces had no connection with John Frum. But their pronouncements generally fell on deaf ears, and rumors spread that at war’s end the Americans would shower more riches on the islanders.
That didn’t happen, of course, and after the war, life grew harder for most Melanesians, as copra demand fell and with it wages. Colonial European rule over many islands returned, and some of the so-called cargo cults transformed themselves into movements for independence. Yet the belief in America as a munificent land of plenty continued. As recently as 2005 an island chief in Vanuatu told an American reporter, “John Frum appeared to us at Port-Vila and stayed with us throughout the war. John was dressed in all white, like American navy men…John said that when the war was over, he’d come to us in Tanna with ships and planes bringing much cargo.”
IN SOME WAYS AMERICAN “CARGO” NEVER LEFT VANUATU. In Luganville, the only true town on Espiritu Santo, Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s wide avenue—built four truck widths across to accommodate heavy equipment—has long been the main street, and the runway made by Americans during the war now serves the Santo-Pekoa International Airport. The wreckage from one of the B-17 Flying Fortresses that took off on bombing missions is scattered in the jungle, and the seafloor of aptly named Million Dollar Point is littered with military artifacts: trucks and other vehicles and machinery, cooking equipment, appliances, all dumped into the Pacific at war’s end.
Will comparable largesse ever come to Vanuatu again? It has in part, in the form of Western tourist dollars. But the faithful hope for more. Every year on February 15 a group of men on Tanna form up as mock GIs. Old Glory is hoisted and “soldiers,” with the letters U.S.A. painted on their bare chests and bamboo rifles on their shoulders, march past true believers and tourists gathered for the annual John Frum Day spectacle. And on Friday afternoons men gather in the ashy volcanic field below fire-belching Mount Yasur to drink kava and sing songs in honor of John Frum, enticing the messiah of plenty to return.