The Pacific Island Where a Dead US Soldier and Prince Philip Are Gods
Cargo cults, like just about any other cult, are completely fucking insane. They originated in early 20th century tribal communities on a number of Pacific islands. Their followers believe that either an American WWII soldier named John Frum, or everyone’s favorite generational racist, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, will somehow come into possession of all the food, clothes, and guns that the West currently owns and deliver it to them. The cargo cults believe that, once that’s happened, the remaining population of the world will disappear, leaving them in control of what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Sadly, these cults have all but vanished, except for on Tanna, a remote island near Fiji and New Caledonia, where they’re still holding strong in their weirdly adorable delusion. Russian photographer Vlad Sokhin spent a week living amongst members of the John Frum cult in Tanna. He joined them during their annual festivities, where they all paint “USA” on their chests and march around with bamboo rifles and wooden AK-47s in the hope that an American soldier from 75 years ago will return to give them presents/kill everyone else in the world.
Vlad also visited the village of Yaohnanen, where the Prince Philip Movement is based, so I had a chat with him about the history of cargo cults.
VICE: Hey Vlad. So, tell me why these Pacific Islanders have ended up worshipping American soldiers and the Queen’s husband.
Vlad Sokhin: It all started in the early 20th century, when Westerners started going to Melanesian islands, like Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. I mean, imagine seeing planes and boats for the very first time. To them, it was literally a miracle from the sky—foreign beings appearing in these huge, noisy things and bringing them rifles, clothes, and food.
I get that, but surely after the Westerners explained who they were, the islanders would start to make sense of it all?
Yeah, they did, but some local prophets started to say that the islanders were the ones who truly deserved all the cargo—that it had been dedicated to them by the gods —but that Westerners were crafty and had unfairly taken possession of it all. People started to believe that, if they imitated the Westerners, they would start to receive the same things, so they built the outer shells of planes out of wood, made landing strips in the jungle, and waited on the strips all day with flags, hoping to guide a plane into land.
I assume no planes ever came?
Nope. It only really happened on Tanna, after the cults fizzled out on all the other islands, and they’ve stopped doing that there now too, because planes bring tourists and money to the island every week anyway. Although, some of the elders still go to the airport every day and wait for planes to arrive, in the hope that John Frum might be on one of them.
Yeah, tell me about John Frum. Was he real? Or is he just a creation of the island’s prophets?
No, I believe he was a real man. Vanuatu was a British and French colony in the 30s, and in 1937 a man named John Frum apparently appeared on Tanna. He was a black soldier, probably from America, but I don’t know that he was actually called John Frum. I think he might have said, “I am John from America,” and the locals heard it as, “I am John Frum.”
So, what was it that made him into the deity they now see him as? I assume they’d seen plenty of soldiers before him?
Yes, but he was the highest ranking soldier on the island, so the islanders saw all these white soldiers polishing the shoes of a man with the same color skin as them, and thought that was proof of God’s original plan—for their people to be the rightful owners of all this cargo.