Topic: A Watery Grave: The Mystery of the Joyita by Rosemary Francis

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A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Living in our long, slender islands we are never far from sandy beaches and craggy coastline.  We grow up in and around water – lakes, rivers, seas – and we love it.  Sadly, though, too often it becomes a watery grave.  Two of my cousins drowned, and so did my brother, who was a powerful swimmer, but suffered a massive heart attack while competing in the Iron Man challenge.

My cousin Roger Pearless disappeared at sea in October 1955, and we still seek closure by learning what happened to him.  He was the Tokelau District Officer, and was travelling from Apia to Tokelau on board the Joyita; a journey of 48 hours.  Another passenger on board was his friend Dr Andy Parsons, who was required to carry out an amputation in Tokelau.

The 69 foot vessel Joyita, a former US Navy patrol boat, never reached its destination.  There was no distress signal received, so when informed it was missing, the Royal New Zealand Air Force deployed three Sunderland flying boats.  In the following weeks, they scanned 100,000 square miles in the largest search ever mounted in the Pacific.  Four commercial aircraft also joined the search for the Joyita, which disappeared with 25 souls on board.

Aged ten at the time, I clearly recall the many anxious toll calls with our relatives.   Roger’s mother-in-law travelled from Nelson to Apia to support her pregnant daughter and young grandson.   She wrote letters home to my mother and Grandma; words of hope for all on board the Joyita as no wreckage had yet been found.

I remember trotting down to the dairy for extra copies of The Press, and helping my mother cut out news reports of the missing Joyita.   In the following weeks I cycled to the post office many times, posting a flurry of letters and news clipping to various relatives as the search continued. 

The Mystery of the Joyita

I remember the delivery of the dreaded yellow telegrams, and our red eyes and grief when the derelict Joyita was identified after five long weeks.

It was discovered by a passing ship, the Tuvalu, which was ordered to wait beside the wreck of the Joyita.   Located near Fiji; it was abandoned and half-submerged five hundred miles from its plotted course.  

A Fijian government vessel was deployed to tow the wreck to Fiji, as it was a hazard to shipping.  Theories about its fate were released.

Joyita ‘appeared to have been rammed amidships’ and ‘It appears the passengers and crew abandoned the ship after a collision.’ Yet gear missing from Joyita would be of no use on a life raft.  Piracy was the main theory expounded.   Fijian newspapers alleged that many Soviet submarines had been operating around these islands.  There were also 48 Japanese fishing boats active in that area of the Pacific. 

The pilot of a search plane had taken a photo and claimed it depicted the Joyita surrounded by Japanese fishing boats.  Several Japanese fishing smacks were known to have foundered and had been salvaged in those critical weeks, prompting speculation that one of them had collided with Joyita, either in darkness or bad weather.  Japanese knives found on board the wreck seemed to confirm that theory.   

On 19th November The Herald and Fiji Times both had a front-page banner headline: ‘All aboard the Joyita murdered.’ This article recorded the theory that a Japanese fishing crew had rammed the Joyita, then slaughtered everyone on board, possibly because they had witnessed something the Japanese did not want them to see.

Only a decade after World War 2, the alleged ramming and murder was believed to be a belated act of revenge on Europeans and Pacific Islanders by Japanese ex-servicemen.


On this fateful journey, the Joyita was carrying a valuable cargo of 1680 gallons of fuel, plus food and medical supplies and iron sheets for the Tokelau hospital; also tools and timber.  Records show that passenger fares were £15 pounds for government officials, paid by the government.  Other adults were charged £5 and ten shillings for the journey. 

The cargo on board was bulky, but not overweight.  It would hinder movement for both crew and passengers; and it also meant that there was no room for the workboat, which was left in Apia.

Some newspapers speculated on the possibility of a mutiny on the Joyita, or an attempt to blow it up.  Records show that there were tensions between Gilberts and Tokelauan crew members during an earlier voyage.  The Press suggested that a waterspout or a volcanic eruption swamped the Joyita.  The Herald surmised that theories of collision, explosion, grounding, piracy and mutiny not explain the major damage to the ship; the sweeping away of part of the deckhouse in which the crew and passengers were accommodated.  This sudden catastrophe caused all the people on board to be carried away with the wreckage. The area was shark-infested, and Joyita’s fragile life rafts would not withstand such powerful predators.

Subsequent inspection of the Joyita found it in poor repair, with a corroded pipe broken below the engine room floor.  It was estimated that there would be no visible sign of leaking until water rose nine inches high; and if the leak was not plugged, over fifty tons of water could pour in within six hours. The Toyota’s engines were thought to be faulty, and the bilge pump inefficient.  

The catastrophe probably occurred at night, because masthead and navigation lights were switched on.  Some personal effects, including the medical equipment of passenger Dr Parsons, were found in the wreck. Other items, including the ship’s log and papers, and £1000 in cash had disappeared.  Life jackets and rafts were missing.

In 1956 an Official Commission of Inquiry sat in Apia, chaired by C.C. Marsack, former Chief Judge of the High Court of Western Samoa.   Sir Ron Davison was counsel assisting the Commission and Attorney-General W.E. Wilson appeared on behalf of the governments of Western Samoa and New Zealand.  Twenty eight witnesses gave evidence. The Commission found that poor maintenance caused the boat’s breakdown, and blamed Skipper Dusty Miller for putting to sea in an unseaworthy craft.

However, there were some errors in their report, and some evidence was reportedly downplayed.  It was believed that their non-committal conclusion about Joyita’s fate was to discourage lawsuits and compensation claims from relatives of the lost.

Many were unhappy with the Commission’s findings.  The Fiji Guardian published the Commission’s findings in a front page story, complaining that the Commission did not investigate all possible causes, suppressed a vital witness and used the testimony of ‘expert ‘witnesses who allegedly concealed matters. 

A member of the Western Samoa Legislative Assembly questioned why several key witnesses were refused permission to present evidence; and why he was denied permission to act as counsel for Skipper Miller.  He implied that officials wanted Miller to be unrepresented so it would be easier to accuse him of causing the disaster; thus deflecting blame from the government.

The Editor of the Fiji Guardian kept the Joyita disaster alive in overseas newspapers, hinting that Soviet submarines and Japanese pirates should have been better investigated as possible causes; implying that the truth was being concealed.  He wrote in an unpublished report that ‘those twenty five were killed, and officialdom knows how, and by whom.’

He was deported from Fiji in 1958, having overstayed his visa, but mainly, he believed, because he continued to investigate and publicise the Joyita mystery.

Families of the victims surmised that during some crisis on the Joyita conflicts developed.  Passengers and crew, in panic, might have wanted to abandon the listing Joyita, afraid it would sink.  Skipper Miller would insist that they stay with his unsinkable boat.  It was known that he always had a pistol on board, but he would have struggled to control his inexperienced crew.  Any such an attack on Miller would make the subsequent chaotic abandonment of the boat more understandable.

Since 1955 every gathering of my family has been dominated by discussions about the Joyita’s fate, and our missing cousin Roger.   Another cousin, David, eventually researched the mystery, and came to the conclusion that Joyita was in poor mechanical shape, and that Skipper Miller was forced by panicking crew and passengers to abandon his listing and waterlogged ship.  

But Roger’s brother Geoff, my mother and I followed the history, the Official Commission findings, and yellowing newspaper clippings; and we remained   convinced that the missing valuable cargo and money probably involved piracy.

We may never know the truth of how those 25 people perished, but their memory lives on through their families.  My siblings and I all became competent swimmers, and were involved in both Royal Lifesaving Association, and Surf Lifesaving patrols.   Our children and grandchildren are now active lifeguards.   

Our lives revolved around water activities, and losing cousin Roger at sea certainly influenced our resolve to learn water safety, and to respect the vast oceans, which cover three quarters of the surface of Planet Earth. 


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:


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A Watery Grave: The Mystery of the Joyita by Rosemary Francis

Note:About the author: Rosemary Francis, nee Pearson, lived for two challenging decades in Southeast Asia. Armed with a linguistics degree, and Teaching, Public Relations and TESOL diplomas, she worked in hotel management, and taught tertiary students. She was an adviser for Civil Defence, served on the Board of Consumers Association, and on the Board of Governors of a large College. She was a regular columnist for the Straits Times; and wrote for 22 international publications. The author of twelve books and several radio plays, Rosemary was recently widowed. She left Canterbury with her menagerie, all exhausted by thousands of earthquakes. Rosemary is the proud mother of four adult children, living in four different countries, and she has eleven grandchildren.
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License
A Watery Grave: The Mystery of the Joyita by Rosemary Francis by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License