The 1955 Joyita Mystery
By James Donahue
While the Mary Celeste has gone down in the annuals of marine lore as one of the great mysteries of
the sea after the ship was found adrift and the crew missing, it appears that the disappearance of ship’s crews on the
high seas are more common than a lot of people realize.
The 65-foot MV Joyita was such a vessel. It was discovered abandoned and adrift, its hull partially
flooded in the South Pacific by the merchant ship Tuvalu on November 10, 1955. The vessel’s three lifeboats were missing
and there was no trace of the 16 crew members and nine passengers that went missing with the Joyita five weeks earlier.
Adding to the mystery was the fact that four tons of cargo also were missing. Had the Joyita been
the victim of pirates on the high seas? This was unlikely since the vessel was carrying medical supplies, timber, empty oil
drums and some foodstuffs. It wasn’t the kind of cargo that pirates might have been interested in.
The Joyita had a long history on the high seas and was a worn-out 24-year-old wooden hulled diesel
powered work horse that had multiple owners and been used for a variety of purposes, including a Navy patrol boat guarding
the big island of Hawaii during World War II.
The vessel was at one time fitted for carrying refrigerated cargo and had 640 cubic feet of cork lining
the holds. This made the boat virtually unsinkable, which was why it was still floating when discovered. The skipper, Captain
Thomas H. "Dusty" Miller, knew about the cork which only adds to the mystery. Why would the people on the Joyita risk the
lifeboats on the open waters of the South Pacific when they knew their vessel could not sink?
The Joyita was operating as a merchant and passenger vessel on that mystery voyage. It was on its
way from Apia, Samoa, to Tokelau Islands, about 270 miles away. It was carrying nine passengers and cargo. It was scheduled
to return with a cargo of copra. When the boat was reported overdue, an extensive search and rescue operation was conducted
from October 6 to 12. The New Zealand Air Force covered an estimated 100,000 square miles in an aerial search but found no
evidence of the missing craft.
When the Tuvalu came upon the Joyita, it was an estimated 600 miles off its planned route. The ship
was listing hard to port, one of the engines was in an operating condition, an auxiliary pump was in place but not running.
The switches for cabin and navigation lights were on. All of the ship's clocks were stopped at 10:25. The logbook, sextant
and chronometer were missing.
There were signs of trouble. A medical bag was found on the floor with four bloody bandages. The flying
bridge had been torn away and there were broken windows in the pilot house. A canvas awning was riggede on top of the deckhouse
behind the bridge.
The Joyita's radio was tuned to the international distress channel. When the equipment was inspected
it was discovered that the antenna was not connected so the range of any radio signal would have been limited to about two
After the ship was towed to Suva and the water pumped out, it was discovered that a corroded pipe
in the raw-water circuit of the engine's cooling system had sprung a leak and flooded the bilges. It was theorized that the
crew did not discover the leak until water rose above the engine room floors. By then, it would have been impossible to locate
the leak. The bilge pumps were found clogged with debris making them almost inoperable. Thus because it had been allowed to
fall into such a dilabidated state, the Joyita became a broken down derelict on the open sea.
The mystery was why the crew didn't choose to remain on board the listing but unsinkable vessel and
wait for help. And what happened to the missing cargo? The Joyita quickly became the talk of the waterfront. Theories as to
what happened to it ranged from a pirate attack to a mutiny by the crew and one theory emerged that the vessel had been attacked
by Japanese troops still holed up on one of the islands, unaware that the war was over.
The Joyita was repaired and sold to new owners. But the vessel quickly gained a reputation as a hard-luck
ship. Its hull was damaged when it went aground at Vatuvalu in 1959. It was abandoned by the owners and beached.
The vessel was built at Los Angeles in 1931 as a luxury yacht for movie director Roland West. When
war broke out in 1941 the Joyita was acquired by the U. S. Navy and used at Pearl Harbor as a patrol boat. After the war the
ship was used as a fishing vessel and cargo and passenger carrier in the South Pacific.