Happy 50th, cargo cult

Ransom Riggs

One of the world's last surviving cargo cults is celebrating its 50h birthday on the Vanuatu island of Tanna, and aside from the notorious Heaven's Gate suicide confederacy, we think the John Frum Movement, as it's known, may qualify as the world's wackiest cult. The John Frum Movement worships a mysterious spirit that urged them to reject the teachings of the Church and maintain their traditional customs. The cult was reinforced during WWII, when US forces landed with huge amounts of cargo - weapons, food and medicine. Here's how physics legend Richard Feynmann described the cult in 1974:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land.

Islanders were stunned to see black and white troops working and living together, in contrast with the French and British officials who had treated them as colonial subjects. The Americans' wealth and racial co-operation seemed to dove-tail perfectly with their own beliefs. So they became convinced that John Frum, their mysterious saviour, was an American. Every year they parade in home-made US army uniforms beneath the Stars and Stripes. This 50th anniversary marks the formal establishment of the John Frum Movement. It also recognizes the day when villagers raised the American flag for the first time in this isolated corner of the South Pacific.