If you haven’t heard of Cargo Cults, you’ve missed out on one of the most intriguing insights into human nature, first made popular by noted physicist Richard Feynman in his 1974 commencement speech at CalTech. (Note: Christopher Moore’s wonderful novel “Island of the Sequined Love Nun” is all about Cargo Cults and it’s very, very funny.)
Although the cults themselves did not originate in the second world war, it was this war that transformed them. During the war, the people of Melanesia (a group of islands NE of Australia) found their normal daily routine overwhelmed by the Japanese and then the American war machines. Overnight, air bases would spring up. Forrest were cut down, runways built, and large steel birds flew in from the sky full of cargo, the likes of which the islanders had never seen before. The Melanesian people were fascinated by this radical transformation of their island and struggled to comprehend the world at large beyond the seas.
When the war ended and the air force abandoned them, they began mimicking the actions of the soldiers. They would clear bushland to form a runway, march with sticks instead of rifles, hoist American flags, build control towers complete with pseudo radios made from coconuts and straw, all in an effort to bring back the planes with their precious cargo.