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Prince Philip, they hardly know ye

A South Pacific 'cargo cult' petitions its deity for bags of rice and a Land Rover.

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Around 1,000 men from Tanna worked as porters and laborers for the US military on the New Hebrides islands of Efate and Espiritu Santo. It is a period of the war immortalized by James Michener in "Tales of the South Pacific."

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To this day villagers in one part of Tanna believe in the eventual arrival of a messiah they call Jon Frum – thought to be a contraction of "John from America," perhaps a GI who showed them particular regard, anthropologists speculate. Every year on February 15, followers show their devotion to this shadowy American spirit by daubing the letters U-S-A in red paint on their chests, dressing in GI-style uniforms, and marching barefoot around a parade ground beneath a fluttering Stars and Stripes. Shouldering bamboo "rifles," they execute perfect drills in the shadow of Mount Yasur, an active volcano.

In the past, the cult – to which at least half of Tanna's 20,000 people adhere – built makeshift runways, piers, and wooden planes to tempt the Americans and their cargo back to the island. "Towers with tin cans strung from wires, imitating radio stations, were erected so Jon Frum could 'speak' to his people," writes travel guide author David Stanley in his book "South Pacific."

Dozens of similar cults arose across the region. In 1964, when the first elections were held for Papua's House of Assembly, the inhabitants of New Hanover Island decided they wanted as their candidate US President Lyndon Johnson. They refused to pay taxes and instead put their money into a fund to entice LBJ to stand for them. They were disappointed when he failed to turn up.

Most of the cults have withered away, but Tanna remains a stronghold.

"Cults like this are a way to preserve traditional culture and reject organized religion," says Ralph Regenvanu, director of the Vanuatu National Cultural Council. "There was a great deal of pressure from missionaries for people to abandon their customs and embrace the church."

To islanders' dismay, the British and French tried to ban polygamy, dancing, and kava, a narcotic beverage made from pepper plant roots.

"The colonial authorities arrested a lot of the cult leaders, but that only made them grow more," Mr. Regenvanu says. "It's still basically a cultural preservation movement.... It melds exposure to the West with old belief systems. It's served people well."

Prince Philip is well aware of the distant adoration and has allowed staff to discreetly send his devotees framed portraits of himself. The villagers fetch them from a thatched hut and present them reverently to visitors. The first, a black-and-white print now badly damaged by damp, dates from the early '60s. The second shows the prince holding a pig-killing nal-nal club in 1980. The most recent was sent in 2000. Letters from Buckingham Palace were also highly prized, but humidity and mice destroyed them.

Despite venerating the prince for half a century, the villagers – none of whom can read or write – only learned recently that his birthday falls on June 10. Great plans are now under way to celebrate the occasion this year with feasting and dancing. Chief Jack has even managed to acquire a new Union Jack, which will be run up a bamboo flagpole and saluted. The celebrations will only really be complete if Prince Philip himself turns up, the chief says. "You must tell King Philip that I'm getting old and I want him to come and visit me," he says. "If he can't come perhaps he could send us some things to help us: a Land Rover, bags of rice, or a little money."

This islanders' devotion to such a distant figure is perhaps not unusual, anthropologists insist. "If you say to the Tannese, 'You've been waiting all this time and neither Jon Frum nor Philip has turned up,' they point out that Christians have been waiting for the return of Jesus for 2,000 years," says Mr. Huffman. "This is not South Seas mumbo jumbo – these are strong, vibrant millennial movements, and they are only getting stronger."