WWII And The Religion Of The Great Silver Birds Of Vanuatu Island
In 1942 the people of Tanna in the Vanuatu islands of what is now Melanesia in the South Pacific witnessed a miracle. Human-like beings with white skin came ashore from gray rafts of immense size and began clearing the land in a long strip with machines that belched smoke and fire and roared like beasts. When there were done, all was quiet and the birds sang in the trees again and you could hear the surf beating against the shore.
Then, great silver birds came down from the sky and landed on the cleared land, and from their bellies came wonderous things and more white men too. Huge boxes of wood were unloaded containing meat and other foods in cans. Then great drums of a brown liquid that burned, a green monster with black, round legs that four men sat on while it moved faster than any man could run. There were even boxes that spoke and made music. And the strangers were friendly too, they shared food and sweet candy and they had healers that could cure the sick. They lived in houses made of shiny metal or green cloth and they mostly dressed the same in shades of blue or green. They called the boxes, “Cargo.”
Many happy months went by and then one day, the strangers suddenly left and never returned.
To the technologically primitive people of Vanna island, this was what the arrival of U.S. forces on the island during WWII appeared to be, miracles and wonders from these white strangers who came from the sea and the air, like Gods.
A New Religion Is Born
When the Gods left and took all their marvelous gadgets, machines, treats, and food with them, the islanders didn’t know what to do.
The island chiefs came up with a plan. If they cleared the land as the strangers did the great silver birds might return. So they cleared the land as the Gods had done.
But that didn’t work.
Perhaps what was missing was their own silver bird on the land-strip for the birds to see and know that this is where they should land. So out of bamboo, they build an airplane.
That didn’t work either.
The strangers practiced these rituals every day of lining up in rows and standing very still. Often they walked together very closely and matched their steps as if they were thinking with a single mind.
So in red paint, they wrote “USA” on their chests and backs and made rifles from bamboo, and marched as the strangers did, in step.
Still, the great silver birds did not return.
But the islanders kept the faith anyway for years and years. They continued to march and build silver birds to put on the runway which they carefully tended to and improved constantly, even adding a control tower as they remembered it. They burned fires and they kept watch on the skies for the return of the great birds that “John Frum” had promised would return.
The Legend of John Frum
You see, John Frum is the prophet of what came to be known as the Cargo Cults of the Pacific Islands. This religion was not isolated to just Vanna in Melanesia but began popping up among isolated island tribes all over the Pacific as each had their own supernatural visitation from the white strangers. No one knows who John Frum really was. Perhaps he was a missionary, or a friendly U.S. Soldier, Sailor, or Marine who told them that these strange Cargo-Gods would return. Some say John Frum first appeared in the islands before the Americans even arrived and issued a prophecy that he would one day return, sweep away the white colonials who rulers and bestow on them houses, food, medicines, and a life of ease and plenty.
When the Americans arrived in 1942, the islanders believed it was the fulfillment of that prophecy of John Fruman, and now they were gone.
But not forever, after about ten years on a special day in December one of the great silver birds would return and drop presents to them.
Believe it or not, these Cargo Cults persisted for decades after the end of WWII and still continue to exist to a certain extent because for seventy years the U.S. military has played the role of John Frum for them.
The Return of John Frum
On December 5th, the Air Force announced the 70th Anniversary of Operation Christmas Drop. This program is the longest-running humanitarian aid mission in the Department of Defense. Every year it parachutes relief supplies to more than fifty-six islands across the Pacific.
Yes, you read that right, fifty-six(56) islands all across the Pacific. Every year for seventy years.
The Air Force claims that Operation Christmas Drop has its origins in 1952 when a B-29 Superfortress saw islanders waving at them on the island of Kapingamarangi, some 3,500 miles southwest of Hawaii. The aircrew decided to drop a bundle of supplies by parachute to them. This explanation does not mention the Cargo Cult specifically, but we can’t help but notice that these islanders were waving at the largest Great Silver Bird in the sky in those days, the B-29.
The Air Force gets very useful training out of this as it involves long-distance navigation over water and loading and dropping cargo by parachute. This is about half of what the Air Force does, by the way, move people and cargo around the world.
Life today on Vanuatu island is not like it was eighty years ago. While it’s still a poor country, in 2020 the United Nations announced that the Vanuatu islands were no longer on the list of Least Developed Countries. There is electricity, and fresh sources of water, resorts, cars, paved roads and of course, airports.
But every year, the people of these islands still dress up like U.S. soldiers, shoulder their bamboo rifles and march in a ritual to invoke the return of the Great Silver Birds with their Cargo of plenty for their people. And every year, the U.S. Air Force makes good on the promise of the mysterious John Frum and makes gifts for Christmas fall from the sky.
Each of our military branches have their points of pride.
Each would like to claim they are the best, but the Air Force may enjoy the singular distinction of being the only military branch that are the living Gods of a religion they created.