1945. The guns fell silent. World War Two had ended. Many GIs and other servicemen returned home and with them came the legend of Kilroy. I was young but I remember hearing my folks and others talk about the ever-present Kilroy. He was here, there, everywhere. A cultural phenomenon, Kilroy became the U.S. super-GI who always got there first, no matter where GIs went.
I’m sure a lot of the veterans back home remember their good friend, Kilroy. He was everywhere, quite a mover. Symbolizing the spirit of the American fighting man who went anywhere in the world to defend freedom, Kilroy went first. Always.
During World War Two, Under Water Demolition divers (Navy SEALS today) swam ashore on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. They arrived ahead of U.S. troops to prepare the beaches for a landing. Surely they were the first GIs there, but no, they weren’t. More than once the divers reported seeing “Kilroy was here” scrawled on makeshift signs or as graffiti on enemy pillboxes. Not to be outdone, they left similar signs for the next incoming GIs. The tradition lasted. Quite a few Korean vets encountered Kilroy as did Vietnam vets. Whatever the war or mission, U.S. servicemen, as a joke, began placing the graffiti wherever they landed. They swore it was already there when they arrived.
While the graffiti and saying aren’t that remarkable what is remarkable is the various places Kilroy has appeared. He’s been spotted on the Berlin Wall and supposedly located on various significant and difficult-to-reach places. Among them are the Statue of Liberty’s torch, China’s Marco Polo Bridge, a high girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York, the peak of Mt. Everest, and the underside of the Arc de Triomphe. “Kilroy was here” has been scribbled in the dust on the moon, in WWII pillboxes scattered around Germany, and engraved in the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
But Kilroy may not be unique to World War Two. In a History Channel documentary about Fort Knox, one scene involves young men who were hired in 1937 to help move gold bars. The narrator mentions that some of these workers left the message “Kilroy was here,” which appears on a wall briefly but distinctly in one scene with the date 5/13/37.
How did this legend arise? Many versions attempt to explain the origin of this ubiquitous graffiti. At least 10 legends attempt to explain “Kilroy was here,” that graffiti often accompanied by the doodle of a man with a large nose peeking over a wall.
The most plausible theory concerns James J. Kilroy, an American shipyard inspector. During World War II, Kilroy worked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was there, he claimed, that he used the phrase to mark rivets he had checked. Kilroy counted the rivets installed by workers who were paid by the rivet. At a shift’s end, a riveter would make a chalk mark to show where he had left off. The next riveter started at his mark. Dishonest riveters discovered that, if they started work before the inspector arrived, they could make more money by erasing the previous worker’s chalk mark and chalking a mark farther back on the same seam. They took credit for some of the previous riveter’s work. J.J. Kilroy stopped this practice by writing “Kilroy was here” at the site of each chalk mark.
Back then, ships were sent out before being painted, so when sealed areas were opened for maintenance, soldiers found “Kilroy was here” scrawled on the metal. Thousands of servicemen may have seen his slogan on the outgoing ships. This Kilroy seemed to be everywhere, thus starting the legend.
The theory holds that servicemen began placing the slogan on different places, especially in captured territory and landings. At some point, the snoop-nosed drawing emerged to accompany the slogan.
The New York Times supports J.J. Kilroy as the origin, based on a 1946 contest held to establish the cultural phenomenon’s origin. The Transit Company of America held a contest offering a real trolley car to the person who could prove he was the “real” Kilroy. Close to forty men claimed to be the legendary Kilroy. James Kilroy, not only had the name, he brought along shipyard officials and some of riveters to prove his authenticity. James Kilroy won the trolley car, and he gave it to his nine children as a Christmas gift. The trolley car became a front yard playhouse.
Whatever its origin, the phrase was destined to be found chalked in places no graffiti-artist could reach, thereby feeding the myth. If Kilroy could leave his mark in difficult places, where else could he go? Based on all this, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable said “the phrase grew by accident.”
Many urban legends attend the Kilroy graffiti. Supposedly, Adolf Hitler believed Kilroy was an American super spy because the graffiti kept turning up in secure Nazi installations. More likely it came in on captured Allied military equipment. Another legend holds that Stalin was the first to enter an outhouse built for the leaders at the historic Potsdam conference. Upon leaving the outhouse, Roosevelt and Churchill heard Stalin ask an aide: “Who is this Kilroy?” Another legend states that a German officer, who had seen frequent “Kilroy was here” markings in different cities, told his men to look out for Kilroy. He wanted to question him personally.
From World War Two, Kilroy spread around the world and through the decades. He appeared on broken earthen walls in France’s Loire River Valley, inside the paper-foil containers of “Meals, Ready to Eat,” under access plates in MASH-era helicopters, and spray-painted on the big guns of Desert Storm.
The phrase has worked itself into the American mind and into our culture as well. One of World War Two’s most popular figurines was that of a pregnant girl standing on a pedestal. And the pedestal’s inscription? Well, I don’t have to tell you.
“Kilroy was here” is cemented into our culture. In addition to references in books and movies, the legend turned up in “Mr. Roboto,” a song written and performed by the band, “Styx,” on it 1983 concept album, “Kilroy Was Here.” The legend remains a fond one in the hearts of servicemen and their families, all who were joyous to see the “war to end all wars” end.