Pacific church members await the return of American pilot. UPI
Special Report: Winds of Change in the Pacific (940-picture) adv
sun july 19 or thereafter
By STEWART SLAVIN
SULPHUR BAY, Vanuatu (UPI) _ In the shadow of a volcano on the
island of Tanna, members wearing Rambo T-shirts and U.S. Army
patches spend their days praying for the return of an American
pilot named John Frum.
Across the island in a remote jungle village, bare-breasted
women in grass skirts and men clad only in "nambas," or penis
sheaths, worship Britain's Prince Philip and sacred stones that
they believe can kill their enemies.
The 25,000 people who live on Tanna, one of the more far-flung
islands in the archipelago nation of Vanuatu, have largely
replaced Christianity with sects. They have rejected the
organized religion embraced by their ancestors, who practiced
cannibalism before missionaries arrived a century ago.
"The whole island had been converted to Presbyterianism early
this century and then John Frum showed up and ruined everything,"
said Tom Numake, 48, head chief of Tanna and a former "witch
doctor" who abandoned black magic for Christianity 10 years ago.
John Frum was "a white man who wore an aviator's helmet and
had a chestful of American medals," said Numake. The American
flier showed up on Tanna around 1935, when he met Numake's
grandfather, Noklam Matua.
"At first, my grandfather started to run away because it was
the first white man he had ever seen," Numake said. "But John
Frum waved and said, `Come back, I have a message to give you."'
Frum's "message" was that the Melanesian islanders should
"destroy what the missionaries have brought you. Burn your
clothes, forsake Christianity and return to your native ways,"
"My grandfather shook his hand and became his disciple. He
felt this was a real god in flesh and blood, unlike Christ, whom
he had never seen."
The island's Presbyterian missionary called Frum "the devil,
the anti-Christ." But Noklam Matua refused to listen and spent
five years in jail along with other church members.
He was released at the outbreak of World War II, when more
than 100,000 U.S. troops began arriving in the islands in
preparation for a drive against Japanese forces to the north.
Matua and other villagers were recruited to unload tons of war
supplies from Navy ships, and received dog tags, military badges
and other U.S. souvenirs for their efforts.
"John Frum told his followers to look toward America for
wealth that would come in ships, and this seemed to be the first
proof," Numake explained. "John Frum came and went from our
island many times in planes and ships, saying he was going off to
fight some battle, but always promising to return. But after the
war, he never came back."
The sect's stronghold is Sulphur Bay, on the coast of Tanna in
the shadow of the Yasur volcano, a 1,184-foot-high peak that
periodically rumbles to life and belches black ash, cinders and
Some so-called "cargo sectists" believe the pilot dwells
beneath the volcano with thousands of other GIs who some day will
rise through the cone to deliver trucks and refrigerators and
other conveniences of Western life.
One adherent, Chief Isaac I, told a recent visitor, "I saw
John Frum this morning and he was telling me about a truck coming
to pick up one of our chiefs for a trip to the other side of the
The chief, whose shirt bore a U.S. Army patch, said only the
village's high chiefs are able to see Frum, a privilege they
earned by abstaining from sex and from drinking kava, a potent
narcotic drink brewed from a pepper root.
Sulphur Bay has a John Frum Church and a secret hut that only
chiefs may enter. On a table inside stands a simple American
vase holding five marigolds.
"When we want to make a call to another village or island, we
simply pick up one of the flowers and talk into it like a
telephone," said Isaac I. "John Frum has given us the power to
speak through the flowers."
Every Feb. 15, hundreds of church members with "USA" painted on
their naked backs and carrying long sticks representing rifles
stage a military-style march. They used to raise the American
flag, but the government banned that practice after independence
The Frum sectists are not alone. In deep jungle on the other
side of the island, a Prince Philip sect has sprung up in a
village whose 50 inhabitants trace their ancestry to the prince.
"Thousands of years ago," said the 25-year-old son of Chief
Naiva, "a member of our village went to England and married into
Prince Philip's family."
About 10 years ago, the village sent a wooden club to Prince
Philip, who had his picture taken with it and sent the photo
back. The photo is kept in a special box in the chief's hut, and
brought out only for ceremonies in which the villagers pray for
Philip to visit them.
Numake said black magic, particularly the use of supposedly
deadly sacred stones, is also still practiced on the 30-mile-long
island, which boasts the largest native population in the
"The last death occurred four years ago," he said. "The
offenders used a sacred stone shaped like a heart and containing
several holes. They put herbs in the holes and then called out
the victim's name. He died of a heart attack three minutes
"We settled the case under tribal law," he said. "His family
was given pigs, some grass skirts and a 12-year-old girl from the
offending village to start a new family."