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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Mystery of the Joyita

IN 1955 the motor yacht Joyita, a private pleasure vessel with 25 passengers aboard, went missing but turned up later, half sunk with no one aboard.

No trace has ever been found of the passengers, who are still listed as missing rather than dead. What happened on the Joyita? Where are the passengers and crew? Let’s take a look at this mystery.

The 69-foot wooden ship was built in 1931 for film director Roland West. He and his wife used it for pleasure cruising along the California and Mexico coast until the outbreak of the Second World War, when it was taken into service by the U.S. Navy as a patrol boat in Hawaiian waters.

After the war the boat was sold to a private owner who refurbished it to haul cargo and passengers. Among the new installations was a cork lining which would help refrigerate the hold and increase its buoyancy. With the addition of the cork the boat became virtually unsinkable. She passed through several owners and by 1955 was owned by a professor at the University of Hawaii and captained by Dusty Miller. It was Miller who took Joyita out for her last voyage.

On October 3 Joyita left Samoa’s Apia Harbor headed for the Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles away. It should have been a routine voyage, but they never made it. After the vessel became overdue a search was launched. But no distress signal was ever received. Why hadn’t the crew radioed for help? Did some disaster befall them so suddenly that they were not able to radio for help? After an extensive search, rescue efforts were called off. Five weeks later a fisherman spotted the drifting vessel, abandoned and listing heavily.

When the recovery party reached the ship, many things seemed strange. Barnacle growth above the normal waterline indicated that the boat has been listing for some time. There was damage to the upper structure that had been haphazardly repaired. The lifeboats were missing but the life jackets were all on board. The ship’s logbook, navigational instruments and firearms were all gone, and there were blood-soaked bandages lying on the deck near a doctor’s bag, indicating someone was injured at the time the vessel was abandoned. It was known that she left port with only one of two engines operational. The crew intended to repair the other engine en route, but apparently were not successful, as the engine was still dismantled when found.

Taking all factors into account, investigators constructed a likely scenario for Joyita’s final cruise. She was seaworthy but not by much. The captain made a foolish decision to leave port with only one engine operational. Along the way they encountered trouble, likely flooding due to corroded pipes below the waterline, and the one useful engine could not propel the boat, power the electrical system including the bilge pumps and fight off the ever-rising water. The boat slowly succumbed to the flooding, but this doesn’t explain what happened to the crew and passengers. Captain Miller knew the vessel was unsinkable by virtue of her cork lining, in addition to a cargo full of empty barrels, which would have increased her ability to stay afloat. Even if Joyita would have completely filled with water she would have remained at the surface, and therefore the best chance for survival would have been to stay with the stricken craft, rather than risk a perilous voyage on the open ocean in a tiny life raft. Was the captain not around to make such an argument? Several theories have emerged as to what happened to the doomed passengers and crew.

Some believe that a mutiny occurred, so that Miller was not present to assure the rest that staying with the vessel was their best chance for survival. Others think the whole episode was a calculated case of insurance fraud. Islanders in the area, led by the local newspapers, accused the Japanese of killing the people on board. The war was only ten years past and emotions still ran high in this part of the world.

If it was a case of orderly, but prematurely abandoning ship, where did they go? Of the three life rafts and one dinghy, not one of them made it to safety, and no trace of them has ever been found. I find that hard to believe.

BC Cook, PhD taught history for over 20 years. He lived on Saipan and travels the Pacific but currently lives on the mainland U.S.