When we started planning our travels across the South Pacific in 2017 I began looking at every map and chart I could get my hands on. In doing so I was completely taken aback by the actual lack of knowledge I had of the countries that exist here. I mean, I’d never even heard of a country called Niue. And Vanuatu? Maybe I’d read the name in some Nat Geo magazine when I was a kid sneaking peeks at the half dressed natives just for a giggle. But, the thought that I’d ever travel to places like this never even crossed my mind. Little did I know that one day I’d find myself in the land of million dollar reefs, voodoo and cargo cults.
Along the way I’ve not only come to find these places endearing and the people truly fascinating, I’ve also learned so much about world history. A subject that in my younger years seemed archaic and useless but as I’ve matured I’ve found it one to be of great interest. And, it’s essential to know and understand history in order to ensure we do not repeat the horrid parts.
We’ve talked about some of the voodo, who do, black magic and cannibalism that is part of Vanuatu’s history but there is so much more to this country than just Melanesian tribal customs. In fact, the US has quite a history here as well.
What’s this about you ask? Well, let me explain. During WWII in our fight to keep Japan at bay the Allied Forces saw how the Japanese were slowly, inch by inch, taking over small islands in the South Pacific. With each conquest they advanced closer and closer to the US border, something we simply could not allow to continue.
Harry Truman’s military decided that we needed to get a strong foothold in New Hebrides (Vanuatu’s original name). He sent over 100,000 US troops to the country in secret which I find quite odd. Heck I can’t walk into a room in the dark and have it be a secret let alone arrange getting 100,000 troops and all their gear across 8000 miles of ocean into a tiny island nation so quietly that it was called a secret mission. But, apparently it was as one day they just started showing up on the shores of this tiny country made up of eighty-three islands.
On the island of Espiritu Santo the US set up her largest defensive base west of Pearl Harbor. They built roads, an airstrip, a hospital and even a movie theater. In fact, the main road that surrounds the island today is the very same one that was built by US troops in 1942.
Sadly, as we discussed in our last article, the Vanuatu government has never seen fit in all these years to actually repair the road, rather they simply fill the huge holes with dirt once in a while.
It turns out that the establishment of a US base in Vanuatu was a huge success for the Allied forces and it is believed that without this base the Japanese would have been much more successful in their efforts.
Aside from the fact that it was the largest US base west of Pearl Harbor, there are a couple of other interesting stories surrounding Vanuatu and the US.
The USS President Coolidge arrived in Luganville on the island of Espiritu Santo on October 26th, 1942. As she entered Segund Bay she hit two “friendly” mines near the southeastern end of the island. As she began to take on water the Captain of the ship ran her aground with the hopes of saving her, the cargo and all of the men on board.
There were over 5200 men on board the ship that day and all but two walked safely off of her onto the shore. Sadly, the Captain’s hopes of saving her were dashed as she slid down the reef and sank. Today this is one of the most sought after dive sights in the world.
A Million Dollar Reef
When the war ended and the Allied forces claimed victory over the Japanese, the US troops were recalled just as quickly as they came.
Vanuatu, at the time, was owned by a joint condominium between France and Britain. When the American troops were preparing to leave, President Truman offered all of the remaining goods from the military base to the French and the British at the astonishingly low price of 6 cents to the dollar. This included everything from weaponry to jeeps, trucks, food and even Coca Cola.
The French and British colonizers rejected his offer believing that if they did the US would be forced to leave everything behind and they’d get it for free.
Truman, however, had other plans. Just to spite them the military made the decision to drive all of the vehicles, clothing, food, drinks and other equipment off the wharf and into the ocean. They used bulldozers to dump what couldn’t be driven off and then eventually they dumped the bulldozers in the ocean as well.
It took just two days to rid the island of all the US goods. Sadly, however, the dumping of these items contaminated the waters with fuel, metal, waste, rubber and everything else associated with the dump. While the Ni-Vanuatu people were literally beside themselves over the waste they did salvage what they could once the American troops departed.
Here at this very spot some eighty years later you can still see the remnants of the carnage left behind. The beach and water off the shore is a virtual graveyard of military equipment. I counted at least a dozen automotive differentials on the beach alone.
Along with the heaps and heaps of scrap metal here you can also find more sea glass than you could ever imagine. I found myself wondering just how many Coca Cola bottles had to have been dumped here because even today you can find identifiable pieces of the old time Coca Cola bottles. I found several in just a few minutes of walking the beach.
These days there is a movement by some of the local elders to get the US to pay for the removal of all of this debris as it’s believed it continues to pollute the waters. That said, someone is making a tidy little profit as they charge $500 Vatu per person just to walk the beach or go snorkeling here so I highly doubt they are going to push too hard to get this all removed. After all, it’s a great tourist attraction.
The John Frum Cargo Cult Lives On
Among the other things America has contributed to Vanuatu is what is known as the John Frum Cult. To be clear Americans didn’t exactly start this religious cult but we certainly have played a part in its history and teachings.
Beginning in the early 20th century, the European Christian missionaries, mostly from Scotland, tried fervently to put an end to the kastom traditions of voodoo, cannibalism and black magic here in Vanuatu. They actually banned all kastom practices that the islanders had been following for eons. From the dancing to the kava drinking to the polygamy and penis wrapping…they banned it all.
For three decades the missionaries had been successful in their fight to end kastom and bring the “heathens” to the Christian way of life. But then one day John Frum appeared and that was the end of it.
From this point forward the story changes a bit depending upon which sect of the John Frum Cult you are listening to. In the strictest sense it has been said that John Frum was actually an American who loved the kastom traditions and despised the church so he told the villagers that they needed to cast the missionaries’ teachings aside and go back to their old ways. He promised if they did so he would return one day with lots of stuff. You know, cool stuff like refrigerators, TVs, and other consumer goods referred to as cargo. Hence the name “cargo cult”.
Others have said John Frum is a vision that came to the village elders in Tanna after they drank too much kava. Whether a vision or an actual man the JFC followers all believe one thing. John is coming back with the booty one day.
Cargo cults like the JFC tend to crop up when the outside world with all its material wealth quite suddenly descends upon the primitive and indigenous tribes of a particular area. Since the locals cannot understand where the foreigners are getting their endless supplies they suspect it is from some sort of magic or God sent from the spirit world.
They believe that by praying to this God they will be rewarded with cargo including food, candy, sodas and all of the niceties of life like washing machines, clothes, radios, jeeps etc… One village chief wants only one thing from John. He wants a new outboard motor for his fishing boat so they can catch more fish and his people can eat better.
In one tribe on the island of Tanna where the chief believes that John Frum will come back from America and bring all of these wonderful gifts to them for their loyalty and devotion the followers actually go to the volcano on Saturday nights and party there until dawn.
In fact, Chief Isaac Wan told one reporter that John From actually lives inside the Mount Yasur volcano. He stated that he travels through it under the oceans to America and back so they go their to worship him and pray for their cargo.
In villages such as the one Chief Isaac is from they have even carved out airstrips in their jungle to entice John to bring plane loads of cargo to them.
Apparently when the American troops landed in Vanuatu in the early 1940s and brought with them all the jeeps, trucks, food and other cargo this helped to fuel the belief that John is American. When asked how they can still believe he will come back when he hasn’t in eighty plus years the villagers will tell you that Christians have been waiting for Christ for thousands of years. Guess you can’t argue with that kind of logic eh?
It’s hard to believe that in the year 2022 there are still people in the world who believe in voodo, magic and visions of Gods who will bring them cargo if they just drink kava, dance and sing. Yes, it’s hard to believe but it is alive and well in remote places such as Vanuatu.
We’re very happy we got a chance to spend a few weeks in this strange and magical country but I can tell you this….I don’t want to live here. Yes, I’m just happy to be able to say “I was there and I stood on the rim of the highly active Mount Yasur volcano. I walked the shores where the Million Dollar Reef lies and I met some interesting and wonderful people throughout these islands.” Oh yes, I’m also delighted to say, “I came and I didn’t get eaten.”
Time To Move On
Now, it’s time to turn our sites to Australia. A couple of weeks of getting Dazzler ready to go on the hard and then we will be flying home. After almost three years we are going to finally get a chance to visit with our families. There are new grandchildren to be met, family to be hugged and enjoyed and friends to see. It will be the first time we’ve spent the holidays with our families in seven years!
For now we bid the rainy land of voodoo and black magic goodbye as we head off on the 8-10 day journey across the Coral Sea to Australia where everywhere you look there’s some insect or animal that wants to kill you. At least that’s what we hear anyway.
So, until next time when we write to regale you with whatever crazy thing happens at sea, remember that there’s an interesting and primitive world out there just waiting to be explored.