Kilroy was Here
He was everywhere during World War II. He was part of every combat and occupation operation from Toyko to Berlin. He appeared on buttons to promote the sale of War Bonds and it’s said he left his mark atop Mount Everest and even in the dust on the moon. Kilroy was here … and there and everywhere … and it seemed he was always there first. And you could be sure he’d be there when the troops left.
But just who was this Kilroy fellow and how did he become such an icon for Allied forces?
The most prevailing (and most believable) explanation is that the original Kilroy was a worker at the Fore River Shipyard in Halifax, Mass., responsible for counting the number of rivets each riveter placed during his/her shift. Riveters were paid per rivet and James Kilroy would put a chalk checkmark beside the rivets as he counted to ensure they weren’t counted twice. The riveters figured out that they could erase the check marks and, when the next inspector came through and checked the now-unmarked rivets, they would get paid twice for the same rivet. When Mr. Kilroy figured out what was happening, he added “Kilroy was here” in large letters next to his marks and the cheating stopped.
Many of Kilroy’s marks were in places that would normally be painted before the ships left the yard, but because the war demanded the ships be ready for combat as quickly as possible, many left the shipyard with the inspection marks still in place. The service members who saw the marks had no idea of their origins, but for whatever reason, the mysterious trademark made an impression and they began to recreate it all over Europe and throughout the Pacific. They had no idea who Kilroy was, but they knew he’d been there before them.
Somewhere along the way, the sketch of a large-nosed fellow peering over a wall got added to the graffiti. Many sources agree the cartoon image, known as Chad, was created by British cartoonist George Edward Chatterton, but like the wording itself, there’s no definitive proof. As the image and graffiti spread throughout the word, the little chap sometimes sported a single hair (or several) or sometimes had none at all.
Servicemen began recreating it wherever they went, insisting it was there when they arrived. Underwater demolition teams, who believed themselves to be the first GIs to arrive on enemy-held terrain, swore they saw Japanese soldiers painting over the image on their equipment. One consistently held legend says that it appeared in an outhouse that was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill when they met at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. The story goes that Stalin was the first to use the facility and, when he emerged, he asked (in Russian), “Who is Kilroy?” It’s also rumored that Adolf Hitler was gravely concerned about Kilroy’s ability to infiltrate secure areas and ordered a detail to actively search for and kill this super-spy.
The belief that James Kilroy was the original was strengthened when the American Transit Association sponsored a nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy in 1946. Of the dozens of men who claimed to be the original Kilroy, only James appeared with any sort of proof. He brought along officials from the shipyard to verify his story and won a real, full-sized trolley car as his prize. The trolley was delivered to his front yard, where it became a playhouse for his nine children.
“Kilroy was here” became a touchstone for WWII GIs as they traveled the globe to defend freedom. Everyone, it seemed, knew Kilroy, considered him a friend and was happy to take him to new places. He was such an icon of the Greatest Generation that he is immortalized twice at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Kilroy continued to support U.S. troops through the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and he’s more recently left his mark in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kilroy is, indeed, here, there and everywhere.