The High-Sea's Mystery Of A Found Ship ... With No Crew Or Passengers
On the 10th of November, 1955, Captain Gerald Douglas of the merchant ship Tuvalu was en route from Suva (the capital of Fiji) to Funafuti (the capital of Tuvalu) in the South Pacific when he spotted something odd. He saw a ship drifting out in the sea, tipped so heavily to one side that the port-side deck rails were dipping in and out of the water.
A recovery party was soon dispatched, and the ship was determined to be the MV Joyita, a cargo and fishing charter vessel that regularly made rounds around Samoa. It had left from Apia in Samoa on October 3rd and was expected to arrive in Tokelau, an island territory of New Zealand, about 48 hours later, but never arrived. A search and rescue team was out for six days, between the 6th and 12th, and although they searched some 100,000 square miles of Pacific, they could find nothing. And now here it was, 600 miles off course -- and completely empty. What remained is a maritime mystery that has puzzled people for decades, inspired a book that offers a theoretical solution, and has been called the “Mary Celeste of the South Pacific.”
The MV Joyita started out life in 1931 as a pleasure yacht, built in Los Angeles for film director Roland West and named for his wife, actress Jewel Carmen – its name meaning “little jewel” in Spanish. In 1936, it was bought by Milton E. Beacon and made numerous trips to Mexico and up to the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939 and 1940. The ship was 69 feet long (yes, we know) and weighed 47 tons. In 1941, it was purchased by the US Navy and became Yard Patrol boat YP-108, patrolling the waters around Hawaii’s Big Island.
In 1943, it ran aground and sustained serious damage, but as the Navy was desperate for boats in the middle of WWII, it was repaired and returned to service. By the war’s end, it was in surplus, so the Navy equipment was removed and the Joyita was once again sold to a private owner. In 1948, it got two new engines, and the hull was outfitted with a cork lining for extra buoyancy. In 1952, the ship passed to its final owner, Captain Thomas Henry “Dusty” Miller, born in England and living in Samoa.
Captain Miller used the boat for chartered trade, shipping, and fishing expeditions, making money off carrying people and goods around the islands. When the Joyita left from Apia, Samoa, on October 3, 1955, it was carrying four tons of cargo, including timber, medical supplies, food, and 80 empty oil drums. There were also 16 crewmen and nine passengers. Among the passengers were a doctor named Alfred Denis “Andy” Parsons, a government official, a copra buyer, and a couple with two children, ages 11 and 3. There was no sign of any of them on or around the ship, and the search and rescue team hadn’t seen any trace of them either.
As the recovery team boarded the boat, things only got more sinister. The radio was tuned to 2182 kilohertz, the international marine distress channel, indicating that they had required help. The port engine clutch and the auxiliary pump were both disassembled and unconnected, meaning the ship had only been running on one engine. The clocks were stopped at 10:25 pm, and the lights were on. The logbook, sextant, and other navigational equipment were gone, along with all three lifeboats. Finally, there were some eerie signs of possible violence. The ship’s bridge had been smashed by something and covered with a canvas awning, moreover, the deckhouse’s windows were broken. On deck, a doctor’s bag was found open containing a scalpel, stethoscope, and lengths of bloody bandages.
When the Joyita was towed back to Suva, the maritime inquiry found that there was a clogged drain in the bilges, meaning that they and the lower decks were flooded. There was still fuel in the tanks, and a rough estimate supposed it had completed about 243 miles of its journey and was only about 50 miles from Tokelau when whatever happened happened. It was also found that although the radio was working, there was an unseen break in the cables, which would have limited the radio’s range to only about two miles.
The flooded lower decks might have given the impression that the ship was sinking, hence the missing lifeboats. However, the ship was never actually in any danger of sinking, even with all that water. The cork lining in a hull, as well as all those empty oil drums in the cargo, made the Joyita pretty much unsinkable. Soggy, yes, but not in danger of sinking the way a boat without that cork lining would be.
However, the inquiry stated that with all the water, the one operating engine would not have been strong enough to steer the ship, and that a squall had knocked it over, causing the tilt it was found with, and accused Captain Miller of recklessness for taking the ship out in its condition, with only one engine and the radio broken.
But the inquiry didn’t explain what happened to those aboard. Author David G. Wright, whose mother’s cousin was one of those lost, believes that the water in the lower decks panicked the crew and passengers, who believed the boat was sinking, and made everyone board the life crafts, including, perhaps, a reluctant captain, whose insistence the boat was unsinkable went unbelieved. In his book, Joyita: Solving the Mystery, he points to missing firearms that he speculates might have been used to force Captain Miller into a lifeboat. ("No, you do NOT get to go down with the ship!")
Another theory states that Miller might have been injured -- hence the bloody bandages -- and was unable to explain the unsinkable nature of the ship, leading everyone else to abandon it in fear. What’s more, they may have thought their mayday message simply went unanswered, but unfortunately, it was never received due to that broken cable that restricted its range. Wright also speculates that had this happened in daylight instead of in the dark, that the crew might have been able to better assess the situation and perhaps made a sounder decision.
In his 1962 book, The Joyita Mystery, author Robin Maugham, who ended up buying the remains of the Joyita in 1962 (which is kind of morbid) suggests a mutiny. A storm, a flooded ship, and an engine too weak to get to the destination was maybe just too much for the crew. After a possible struggle that resulted in an injury, maybe Miller’s, the crew decided to abandon the ship, ultimately getting lost at sea. However, why would an experienced sailor like First Mate Chuck Simpson abandon a still-floating ship to get into a dinky lifeboat? Maugham states they might have tried to get to a nearby reef, but that remains only a theory.
But then what about the four tons of cargo? Where did that go? Well, it’s possible that after the crew and passengers left on the lifeboats, some other vessel or vessels happened by and helped themselves to the abandoned cargo. They would have been able to take it without any trace.
Other, far less plausible theories have included pirates who killed the passengers and crew and stole the cargo, as well as an insurance fraud scheme, but these have just been hearsay. A considerable anti-Japanese sentiment, leftover from WWII, still haunted the area, and some newspapers blamed Japanese fishing boats or still-active military units. There was also a rumor about the crew being kidnapped by a Soviet submarine, as Cold War tensions were also rising. The damage to some of the ship’s structures and its broken windows might have inspired the idea of a violent struggle. But again, these were just stories, and nothing of the sort has ever had even the smallest evidence to support it.
After the wreck, the Joyita was repaired and started being used as a trade vessel again (which seems too spooky), but after running aground on a reef, it was, maybe kind of belatedly, considered a “bad luck” ship. Finally, the functional parts were stripped off, and piece by piece it slowly disappeared over the years until, by the 1970s, the Joyita simply was no more.
In recent times, the loss at sea has been commemorated, but it hasn’t always been so easy for the families of the lost to get answers. Iris Thomas, daughter of Joyita passenger Bert Hodgkinson, says that she remembers people connected to the mystery being “treated with suspicion and dismissal.” She was relieved when a former police officer from Tokelau, Luther Toloa, set up a dual memorial in Apia, Samoa, and on Tokelau’s Fakaofo atoll, which were installed in 2012. In 2009, a memorial walkway was named for Dr. Andy Parsons, and a commemorative stamp was issued in Western Samoa in 1975, the 20th anniversary.
The fate of the 25 people aboard the MV Joyita in October 1955 seems to have stemmed from a series of accidents, misunderstandings, and unfortunate events. Under different circumstances, even perhaps just with some daylight, these might have been avoided or rectified. What exactly happened that night might never be known, but for now, the case of the Joyita remains one of the South Pacific’s most haunting.
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