The USS Arizona is one of the nation’s most hallowed sites, an underwater grave for more than 900 sailors and Marines killed when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and sank the ship in 1941.
Now, it’s the scene of alleged mismanagement.
An internal report from the National Park Service, which operates a visitors center for a memorial at the battleship, said tour companies sold tickets with the knowledge of park officials even though tickets are supposed to be free.
Another pointed to substandard maintenance, including scuffed museum walls that languished unrepaired and bird feces that weren’t cleaned.
The revelations in documents released last month come just before crowds gather at Pearl Harbor on Sunday for an annual ceremony remembering more than 2,400 sailors, Marines and soldiers killed 73 years ago.
“To watch the desecration of a very sacred, very important place was very disheartening,” said John Landrysmith, a former park service guide and 41-year-old Iraq war veteran.
He said he quit his job earlier this year after feeling his supervisor was punishing him for questioning the ticket policy and believing the park service failed to act on his complaints. He said he intends to file a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the park service.
Park superintendent Paul DePrey said the park service was trying to accommodate the tour companies, which bring busloads of people each day.
“It was not intended for a huge glut of tickets that were going to just the tour companies,” he said. “We tried to work that system the best we could. It was not successful.”
The practice stopped, he said, when the park service realized it didn’t comply with department policy and wasn’t working as intended.
A new ticketing system starting next month, DePrey said, will do a better job laying out the terms and conditions of the permits that commercial tour companies operate under. The park service will also start scanning tickets to get data on how they are being used.
The problems outlined in the reports deal with the visitors center, which anyone visiting the Arizona and the memorial must pass through. The $56 million complex, rebuilt four years ago, explains events leading up to the attack and the attack itself with the help of museum exhibits and movie screenings.
Visitors then board boats to the white, open-air memorial that sits atop the Arizona’s rusting hull.
Only 4,350 boat tickets are available each day. That amounts to less than 1.6 million tickets a year, even though the park service says 1.8 million people visit Pearl Harbor annually.
A September 2013 park service report said there was “at minimum” no transparency in the way tickets were distributed.
The report, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, outlined how park service employees gave walk-in tickets intended for independent visitors to commercial tour companies who then sold them.
Tickets were also given to Pacific Historic Parks, a nonprofit that runs a gift shop and raises money for the memorial. The organization gave some to people spending $7 to rent an audio tour from the nonprofit and gave others to companies that would lead clients to the audio tours, the report said.
There were rarely enough tickets for independent visitors while this was going on, the report said.
DePrey said visitors pay the companies for the transportation they provide to Pearl Harbor from Waikiki hotels and other places, not for the tickets.
Yet the report said uniformed commercial tour drivers were observed standing about 15 feet in front of the park service information desk – in full view of the park ranger – offering tickets to visitors who were already at Pearl Harbor.
Another anecdote said two visitors reported being sold tickets for $39 each by a tour company even though they drove their own rental car to the visitors center.
A separate internal report listed a slew of maintenance issues. Photos from the report show peeling paint in the museum and accumulated bird droppings.
Some maintenance problems persist. Visitors to the museum today will see silver duct tape securing a black ribbon with the words “Exhibit Temporarily Unavailable” to an empty glass case that once held a model of the Arizona. The exhibit has been down for a year.
Outside, an orange plastic fence surrounds a muddy spot where a water catchment basin isn’t working as intended. The fence has been up since last December, the park service said.
The park service is trying to keep the facility in as good a condition as possible, DePrey said.
“I’m not happy when I see aspects of the facility that are in poor condition,” he said. “It’s not something that I or my maintenance or the park rangers are proud of. But we are realistic that these things will happen from time to time.”