Cargo Cults of Tanna – Vanuatu - Atlas Obscura

Cargo Cults of Tanna

Meet a Melanesian tribe that worships an American soldier from World War II. 


Cargo cults tend to refer to any primitive society who revere the goods, or cargo, of first world countries as spiritual gifts.

During WWII, the island of Tanna in Vanuatu had its first glimpse of such wealth when American GIs came to work at the military base on the nearby island of Efate. Eager to disconnect from European colonization and empowered by seeing black American soldiers preside over the cargo, new religions began to emerge.

The most fascinating of the cargo cults is the John Frum Movement. Members worship an American serviceman named John Frum, said to have originated with a soldier identifying himself as “John, from America.” Annual celebrations are held on February 15th - John Frum Day.

A ceremonial army of men will paint “U.S.A.” on their chests and perform a hybrid of a military drill and kastom dances with wooden guns. They will raise the American flag, build WWII airplanes out of grass, and build a makeshift landing strip, all with the expectation that John Frum will return with more cargo.

Likewise, another tribe on Tanna worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, as a divine being.

Know Before You Go

Air Vanuatu and Pacific Blue flights from Australia arrive daily to Port Vila. Flights from Port Vila to Tanna run three times a day by government-owned Vanair.