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“Nobody will know their fate”

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Exactly 65 years ago, the Joyita, the famous ghost ship, whose crew and passengers disappeared without a trace, was found in the South Pacific Ocean. There are many theories that explain the fate of the missing people, including Japanese pirates, Soviet submarines, rebels and drug dealers. But only one version seems really convincing – and it has the worst ending. “” figured out what happened in the vicinity of Samoa in October 1955.
The organizer of the Joyita’s last voyage was a young New Zealand official, Roger Pearless. In March 1955, he was appointed District Administrator of the Tokelau Territory, three islands in the South Pacific that are administered by New Zealand. He took up the job with an enthusiasm that had long been out of the habit of those places.
The local residents liked the new boss and his plans. After years of stagnation, active Pearless with an Oxford education and many ideas seemed like a breath of fresh air to them. For this he got away with tactlessness, arrogance and strange manners: among other things, he demanded that a Polynesian boy with a cup and saucer always go after him and serve him tea on demand.
The appointment found Pirless in the Samoa archipelago, 450 kilometers from Tokelau. It is not far – by sea such a distance can be covered in a couple of days or even faster. The problem was that Tokelau did not have regular communication with its neighbors. Ships sailed there so rarely that there was a shortage of medicine and food on the islands.
Pearless needed a ship – and he found it. The merchant ship Joyita languished for months in the Samoan city of Apia, where he lived. In April, Peerless chose it for the first trip to Tokelau and since then believed that the ship should regularly ply between the islands. The government thought differently, but gave permission for two additional flights.
During her short life, “Joyita” managed to change several very different professions. It was built in 1931 for the Hollywood director Roland West. Then she was considered a luxury yacht: sheathing of thick cedar planks, exquisite teak trim and ultra-modern navigation equipment.
Four years later, West fell into the center of a scandal: his mistress, the movie star Thelma Todd, died. The cause of death was an accident, but many believed that the director himself had set it up. In such a situation, a luxury yacht, suggestive of the deceased, was very inappropriate. West decided to get rid of the Joyita and sold it to a certain Milton Bacon.
In October 1941, shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Joyita was turned into a military boat and sent to guard Hawaii. There she remained until the end of World War II. After the war, the ship was sold to a fishing company, re-equipped again and, for greater stability, was covered with a cork, which made it practically unsinkable. The ship turned out to be unprofitable, changed its owner again and in 1952 went to Katarina Luomala, a 45-year-old professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii.
Luomala bought the Joyita for her lover, the experienced captain Thomas Miller, nicknamed Dusty. He had an interesting biography: a hereditary sea wolf, from the age of 14 he served in the British merchant navy, went through the war, then moved to the Pacific islands. At sea, he preferred Polynesian lava-lava skirts to any clothing and did not take a drop in his mouth, although on the shore he became a desperate drunkard. A friend from a yacht club in Fiji said Miller reminds him of sailors who smuggled into Tangier during the war.
Miller knew nothing about fishing, so he was even less successful in this business than the former owners of the Joyita. After several unsuccessful fishing expeditions, he ran out of money and got stuck in Samoa, in the city of Apia. The April voyage with Pearless was his last attempt to improve his fortune, but no one bought the catch again.
After returning, Miller had no money left for repairs or even for fuel. He lived in poverty, malnourished, but still hoped for something. When Katarina Luomala advised to sell the Joyita, the captain obeyed, but broke the price so that he scared off all buyers. Acquaintances suspected that he simply did not want to part with his ship.
On October 1, 1955, New Zealand authorities gave Pearless the go-ahead for a new trip. To celebrate, the official immediately sent a letter to his brother, who remained in New Zealand. “I am sailing to Tokelau again in the Joyite,” he wrote. – Two trips, in total – ten days. For me, this is a major moral victory, because for several months I have been seeking permission, but the government hesitated. ”
The financial part of the issue was taken over by E.A. Coxon & Company, which traded copra, the dried pulp of coconut that is used to make butter. Copra was Tokelau’s main export product, but due to the lack of ships, it could not be sent for sale for a long time.
Coxon representatives, 66-year-old George Williams and 40-year-old James Wallwork, joined the team as representatives of the cargo owner or supercargo and paid for 60 200-liter barrels of diesel fuel, which were immediately filled into the Joyits tank. Now she could make both planned flights to Tokelau and back without refueling, and the remaining fuel was quite enough to get to one of the surrounding islands.
Empty fuel barrels were loaded into the hold, medicines and sacks of flour, sugar and rice for the inhabitants of Tokelau were sent there. In addition to food, the Joyita carried kerosene, mousetraps, aluminum strips to protect the coconut trees from rodents, roofing sheets for the hospital, and timber, which were placed on the deck.
Meanwhile, Miller hastily assembled a new team. A significant part of the new sailors were natives of Tokelau, who were helped by a Chinese businessman who lived in Apia. Miller knew several other people from other voyages. For example, Kiribati-born boatswain Tekoko and mechanic Tanini participated in his April expedition. This time, Tanini had to be persuaded – for some reason, the new campaign did not attract him.
“Once in a liquor store there was a fight with three sailors from Tofua, – recalled journalist Jack Thornton. – So he, while one beat him, put the other two, then shook his head, slowly got up from his knees and knocked out the last one with one blow. But those wild times are in the past. During the forced downtime, Simpson settled down, found a wife and a stable job on land. He agreed to help Miller out of old memory, but warned that this was the last time.
In addition to the 16 crew members, eight passengers boarded the Joyita, including Pearless, who had planned to accompany Miller on both voyages, and the Irish physician Alfred Parsons. He lived in New Zealand for a long time and came to Apia relatively recently to earn money to return to his homeland. In Tokelau, he was to amputate the hand of a local resident who was dying of gangrene.
The last, 25th passenger was picked up at the last moment. 22-year-old Joseph Pereira, on his way to Tokelau to repair radio equipment, almost missed a departure. When he showed up, he was already struck off the list, and he had to try to get on the ship.
The Joyita had never carried so many passengers before. To make it a little more spacious, Miller decided to leave the only boat in Samoa, and still only ten people fit in the cabins. The rest had to huddle near the logs on the deck and spend the night under a tarp. But there was no other transport, so people put up with it.
On October 2, 1955, everything was ready to sail. Crew members and passengers took their places aboard, the Joyita set sail and headed for Tokelau. When the mourners dispersed, the only serviceable engine emitted a cloud of smoke and stalled. The sailors had to sit on the oars and row back. The ship stayed in the port all night and again set out to sea only at five o’clock in the morning. This time no one saw him off.
With a speed of 5.5 knots, the Joyita could reach Tokelau in 47 hours. When she did not appear on time, an alarm was raised on the island and military aviation assistance was requested. The next morning, the pilots began searching for the missing ship from the air. To no avail: there was no Joyita at sea, no signs of a shipwreck, no inflatable life rafts that could have carried passengers and sailors. A week later, when there was no longer any hope of salvation, they decided to curtail the search operation.
“Joyita” was found five weeks later, when the passions had almost subsided. On November 10, 1955, the captain of the merchant ship Tuvalu noticed a heavily heeled ship near Fiji. To get to this point, “Joyita” had to deviate from the route for almost a thousand kilometers and go not north, where Tokelau is located, but southwest – in the direction of Fiji.
The ship was quiet and dark. The sailors drew attention to the damaged above-deck structures – in particular, the deck on the roof of the wheelhouse. “Tuvalu” radioed about the find to the nearest port and remained near the “Joyita” for about 24 hours, until a tug arrived and delivered the found ship to Fiji.
When water was pumped out of the Joyita, it turned out that there were really no people on board – neither living nor dead. All 25 people disappeared without a trace. Life rafts and vests, however, were also missing, as were navigation equipment, including a chronometer and sextant. Miller’s logbook and pistol also evaporated.
Not only are the small things missing that you can take with you if you wish. After inspecting the ship, it became clear that most of the cargo was missing – about four tons of logs, kerosene, food and other goods. 70kg bales are not easy to handle, especially in an emergency.
The amount of fuel in the tanks indicated that the engine had been running for about 40.5 hours and stopped only at 21:30 on October 4th. During this time, “Joyita” covered the lion’s share of the route to Tokelau and was 50 kilometers from the destination. The ship crossed a thousand kilometers in the direction of Fiji with the engine inoperative – at the behest of waves and underwater currents.
Based on the position of the switches, the incident that led to the death of the Joyita took place in the dark. In addition, it turned out that someone had time to turn on the onboard radio station and tuned it to the wavelength over which distress signals are transmitted. Efforts were in vain: due to faulty electronics, no one heard the message.
It looks like people left Joyita almost immediately. If they had stayed even for a few days, they would have needed food, but the meat in the refrigerator and drinking water remained intact. In addition, no paper notes or messages were found on the ship, scrawled on the deck or side. Apparently, the crew and passengers of the Joyita did not have time for this.
But why such a rush? The ship was not called unsinkable for nothing. Thanks to the cork and empty barrels, he did not sink even after the hold was filled with water. What happened on the fatal night was anyone’s guess. And people wondered with all their might.
The first version of the death of the “Joyita” was suggested by the sailors from the “Tuvalu”: ​​they believed that she crashed into another ship. The hypothesis had to be abandoned after studying the corpus. It turned out that there were no collision marks on it. Only the structures on the deck were damaged.
Meanwhile, in Fiji, much less plausible theories were discussed – for example, that people from the Joyita could have been kidnapped by a Soviet submarine. Believing this was not easy even at the height of the Cold War. Why and who could need the inhabitants of the half-forgotten island and how, then, to explain the damage?
The versions about pirates were very popular. One of the former members of Miller’s crew recalled that during the voyages to the island of Pago Pago “Joyita” was twice pursued by a mysterious vessel with extinguished lights. The captain seemed to know him, but he kept his mouth shut and both times left the chase. Maybe not lucky this time?
Of course, pirates wouldn’t be fond of flour and mousetraps. But what if there was something more substantial on the Joyite? One of the British tabloids suggested that drugs were hidden in the hold. According to another version, the ship could have been attacked for the thousands of pounds in cash that Williams was carrying to buy copra. In 1955, this was a pretty serious amount.
The most enduring versions blamed Japanese fishermen for what happened. According to one of them, the Japanese boat collided with “Joyita” and sank when her crew and passengers got on it. In November 1955, the Fiji Times and Herald published an article claiming that the Japanese killed everyone on board the Joyita to get rid of unnecessary witnesses. Another, even more dubious version of the same theory, explained the killings by the fact that there were former Japanese soldiers among the fishermen who continued to consider foreigners as enemies.
“None of the proposed versions, including collision, explosion, grounding, piracy and riot on board, are supported by facts,” admitted the New Zealand Herald in December 1955. Natural causes remained, such as a giant wave that washed all people overboard, a water tornado, or the eruption of an underwater volcano.
The official commission that investigated the circumstances of the disappearance of the people from the Joyita preferred a more prosaic explanation. After interviewing experts, she concluded that the cause of the incident was a broken cooling pipe, through which seawater poured into the hold. Attempts to seal the leak failed, and there was nothing to pump out the water – the existing pumps were useless.
Although the cork kept the ship afloat, people chose to leave on rafts and probably died. And Captain Miller is to blame for all this. He knew that only one engine on the Joyite was working, he knew that the radio station was not working, he knew that the boat remained in Samoa, but he went out to sea. If not for him, the tragedy could have been avoided.
The official version does not explain why people chose to leave the unsinkable ship. Among the missing was Miller, who knew very well about cork siding and could not help but understand that on the raft he had less chance of survival. Samoan official Peter Plowman, who inspected Joyita in August 1955, claimed that the captain had repeatedly told him about the invulnerability of his ship and swore that he would not leave it under any circumstances.
The same question plagued the head of the commission, Charles Marsack. “I have no idea what could have caused him to abandon the ship,” he admitted. “And I don’t believe he did it.”
Somerset Maugham’s nephew, English writer Robin Maugham tried for many years to find a clue. He visited Samoa and Fiji, spoke with people who knew Miller and other characters in this story, and even acquired the ship itself. In 1962 he published the book “The Mystery of the Joyita”, in which he outlined his versions.
Maugham suspected that during the disaster Miller was seriously injured and was unconscious or died. The reason could be a conflict with Dr. Parsons, who wanted to leave the ship, or with Chief Officer Chuck Simpson, who may have demanded to turn back. According to Maugham, bloodied bandages and medical instruments allegedly found on the deck of the ship could indicate the injury and involvement of Parsons, according to Maugham (other sources do not confirm this).
Later, Maugham’s interlocutors complained that the writer embellished their words, and even invented something. In his versions, he weaved together all imaginable speculations about the events on the Joyite. First, the ship swoops in on a huge wave, then the sailors raise a riot, and the doctor organizes the evacuation of passengers on the rafts. Only the wounded Miller and the loyal mechanic Tanini from Kiribati remain on the ship, who will soon meet death at the hands of insidious Japanese fishermen.
Another researcher of the fate of the Joyits, Roger Pearless’s cousin David Wright, described his findings in the book Solving the Mystery of the Joyits, which was published in 2002. Unlike Maugham, his goal was not fun, but precision. The result is much more boring and therefore convincing.
Wright’s version largely coincides with the opinion of the official commission. He believes that the disaster happened on the second day of the journey, on the evening of October 4, 1955. The water flowing into the hold through the rusted cooling pipe was not noticed for a long time. When the leak was discovered, the team tried unsuccessfully to seal it with mattresses. To lighten the ship, the cargo – those four tons of logs, sacks and cans – were thrown overboard. But it was all wasted. First, the flooded main engine stalled, and then the auxiliary one, after which the ship remained de-energized.
As the Joyita began to roll, panic seized the passengers and crew. People were seriously afraid that the ship would capsize and they would drown. How could Miller have acted in such a situation? Wright quotes Douglas Mackenzie, who knew the Joyita’s captain well and believed that he would try to assert his authority with a loaded revolver. Miller’s other friend, Captain S. B. Brown, did not rule out that the captain could grapple with the chief officer. No one knows exactly how the events developed, only the outcome is known: despite Miller’s possible objections, the rafts were launched.
The Joyita’s rafts could only hold ten people — at best. The rest probably had to jump into the water and grab onto the ropes tied to the rafts. The current carried them farther and farther from the ship, and possibly from each other, until they were left alone in the ocean – without food, without fresh water and without communication with the outside world. “There was just enough time for the sad realization that no one would know their fate,” Wright writes.
Hardly anyone managed to hold out longer than a couple of days. Someone died of thirst and exhaustion, someone was overtaken by sharks. During a search operation in the first days after the disappearance of the vessel, scraps of life jackets with marks of shark teeth were found on the shore. Then they did not pay attention to them, but in vain. It is possible that this was the solution to the mystery of the “Joyita”.

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