The most widely known period of cargo cult activity occurred among the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of indigenous peoples observed, often right in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought by technologically advanced nations. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of supplies and later the Allied forces did likewise.
The vast amounts of military equipment and supplies that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts. This was true of the Japanese Army as well, at least initially before relations deteriorated in most regions.
The John Frum cult, one of the most widely reported and longest-lived, formed on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu. This cult started before the war, and only became a cargo cult afterwards. Cult members worship certain "Americans" (such as John Frum and Tom Navy), who they claimed had brought cargo to their island during World War II, as the spiritual entity who would provide the cargo to them in the future.
With the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo. In response, charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses.
In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more aeroplanes. The cult members thought that the foreigners had some special connection to the deities and ancestors of the natives, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.
Cargo cults are typically created by individual leaders, or big men in the Melanesian culture, and it is not at all clear if these leaders were sincere, or were simply running scams on gullible populations. The leaders typically held cult rituals well away from established towns and colonial authorities, thus making reliable information about these practices very difficult to acquire.
Over the last sixty-five years, most cargo cults have disappeared. However, some cargo cults are still active including:
The John Frum cult on Tanna island (Vanuatu)
The Tom Navy cult on Tanna island (Vanuatu)
The Prince Philip Movement on the island of Tanna, worships Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II.
Yali's cargo cult on Papua New Guinea (Madang-region)
The Paliau movement on Papua New Guinea (Manus island)
The Peli association on Papua New Guinea
The Pomio Kivung on Papua New Guinea
Anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace conceptualized the "Tuka movement" as a revitalization movement.
Peter Worsley's analysis of Cargo cults placed the emphasis on the economic and political causes of these popular movements. He viewed them as "proto-national" movements by indigenous peoples seeking to resist colonial interventions. He observed a general trend away from millenarianism towards secular political organization through political parties and cooperatives.
Theodore Schwartz was the first to emphasize that both Melanesians and Europeans place great value on the demonstration of wealth. "The two cultures met on the common ground of materialistic competitive striving for prestige through entrepreneurial achievement of wealth." Melanesians felt "relative deprivation" in their standard of living, and thus came to focus on cargo as an essential expression of their personhood and agency.