Kilroy Legends Researched by Andy Calori
"Nobody knows where the name of this archetypal American soldier came from,
though the phrase turned up on walls and equipment all over the world during
World War II. The most famous story links the expression with Mr James J
Kilroy, of Halifax, Massachusetts. This is how the New York Times explained
matters on 24 December 1946: "During the war he was employed at the
Bethlehem Steel Company's Quincy shipyard, inspecting tanks, double bottoms
and other parts of warships under construction. To satisfy superiors that he
was performing his duties, Mr. Kilroy scribbled in yellow crayon 'Kilroy was
here' on inspected work. Soon the phrase began to appear in various
unrelated places, and Mr. Kilroy believes the 14,000 shipyard workers who
entered the armed services were responsible for its subsequent world-wide
use". This has been widely believed and is stated as fact in several books
on phrase origins. The problem is that there is evidence that the name, and
the phrase, were being used in this way even before the US entered the War
at the end of 1941."
During World War II, the saying "Kilroy Was Here!" began to appear as
graffiti at home and wherever the American military traveled abroad.
Eventually the saying, and the cartoon character that often accompanied it,
came to represent America's worldwide presence. Today. it remains a
whimsical symbol of the momentous achievements made by an entire generation
of Americans during the 20th century's darkest hour.
Kilroy was here! The message appeared mysteriously all over Europe and the
Pacific during World War II. The phrase was scrawled on desolate beachheads,
notable landmarks and on walls everywhere. The message was believed to have
been left by an American, although it was often discovered by the first
American troops to enter areas formerly occupied by enemy troops. The phrase
irritated German and Japanese troops to no end but delighted (and also
bewildered) American forces as it added much needed levity to the brutality
of war. It also provided a great deal of mystery about who Kilroy was and
how he got to so many areas of the war before anyone else.
At the conclusion of the war, the American Transit Association decided to
put a face on the mysterious Mr. Kilroy. After sponsoring a radio contest to
draw out the phantom, they declared James J. Kilroy of Halifax,
Massachusetts the "Kilroy". Mr. Kilroy explained that as a part of his work,
he would write the phrase "Kilroy was here" on the wall of any area he
inspected in order to let others know that it had already been inspected.
The Association awarded him a 22-ton streetcar which he eventually converted
into sleep quarters for some of his children.
Kilroy Was Here
Written by Dennis DeYoung
Lead Vocals by Dennis DeYoung
"...I'm Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy! Kilroy!"
Kilroy Was Here!
This article is dedicated to Annie Darek
First of all, the only thing that can be said for certain about Kilroy is
that he was indeed there!
His name and often his "peeking over the top" scrawled image began to appear
early in World War II and soon spread out over the globe. Whereever the
world found American fighting men, Kilroy was there.
Kilroy was everywhere.
He appeared on shattered earthen walls in the 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.
When found in inaccessible areas, the logo could only have been put there by
the assemblers. How many of these (which are still being discovered today as
WWII vehicles are restored at the hands of enthusiastic collectors) were put
there by Rosie the Riveter?
Where did this legend, for it is a legend, originate?
Here is one version:
James J. Kilroy was a shipyard inspector in Boston during WWII. He wrote the
phrase "Kilroy was here" to indicate that he had been aboard and inspected
the riveting and bulkheads.
Newly arriving troops would see the chalk marks and be mystified. Who was
this super-soldier who preceded them?
The phrase caught the imagination of the young men, and many began to scrawl
it on any convenient (and many a not-so-convenient) vertical surface.
Now, here's what we know happened:
By the time our troops arrived in Europe, Kilroy had come there with them,
and the little "peeking over the top" graphic that represented Kilroy soon
began to accompany the rapidly-scrawled graffiti. This simple, but charming
little graphic was important in the global spread of Kilroy because it could
be quickly and easily drawn by virtually anyone.
As the war progressed, American blood and Kilroy were left at islands whose
names few at home had ever heard of - places with names like Guam, Iwo Jima,
Representative of the spirit of the American fighting man whose role was to
go and do his job anywhere in the world, Kilroy was there.
And, not only did he go there with our soldiers, he got there first! Navy
Seal divers found Kilroy scrawled on the sea-facing surfaces of concrete
enemy pillboxes -- on the beaches of Japan!
At the Potsdam conference, Stalin excused himself to go to the restroom.
Roosevelt and Churchill would later hear him ask an aid, "Who's Kilroy?"
Who was the real Kilroy? According to kilroywashere.org, a contest was
staged in 1946 to determine this. The prize was a trolley car. Forty men
came forward, and James J. Kilroy was one of them. He brought some riveters
and managers from the shipyard to help him establish his case. The judges
were convinced, and the trolley car was awarded to be installed on Kilroy's
front lawn as a playhouse for his nine children.
Now, what is the connection between Kilroy and Rosie the Riveter?
When the U.S. government needed to increase their work force by employing
more women, they conceived of the "Rosie the Riveter" advertising campaign.
The model was probably a Rose Will Monroe, an actual riveter from Michigan,
and the slogan was "We Can Do It!"
Rosie became a symbol of women working in the war industry everywhere in the
US. These women built the ships and tanks and airplanes that fed the
voracious war machine.
And many of them were married to absent soldier and sailor husbands. In
their "V-mail," they found letters of love, sadness, sorrow, hope - and
Kilroy had made it back to America.
And from these women workers, these "Rosies" by the thousands, Kilroy was
sent out again and again to fight anew.
Kilroy was there.
I'll close by quoting two excerpts from a poem entitled "Kilroy." It was
written by Peter Viereck, a Professor Emeritus of Russian History. (Source:
Louis Untermeyer's Modern American Poetry, Modern British Poetry, Harcourt
Barce & World, Inc., 1958, p.657.)
At times he seems a paranoiac king
Who stamps his crest on walls and says, "My own!"
But in the end he fades like a lost tune,
Tossed here and there, whom all the breezes sing.
"Kilroy was here"; these words sound wanly gay,
Haughty yet tired with long marching.
He is Orestes--guilty of what crime?--
For whom the Furies still are searching;
When they arrive they find their prey
(leaving his name to mock them) went away.
Sometimes he does not flee from them in time:
"Kilroy was--" (with his blood a dying man
Wrote half the phrase out in Bataan.)
God is like Kilroy; He, too, sees it all;
That's how He knows of every sparrow's fall;
That's why we prayed each time the tightropes cracked
On which our loveliest clowns contrived their act.
The G. I. Faustus who was everywhere
Strolled home again, "What was it like outside?"
Asked Can't, with his good neighbors Ought and But
And pale Perhaps and grave-eyed Better Not;
For "Kilroy" means: the world is very wide.
He was there, he was there, he was there!
And in the suburbs Can't sat down and cried.
Kilroy Was Here
Buy War Bonds Button featuring Kilroy.
The vast majority of you World War II vets are very familiar with the phrase
"Kilroy Was Here" found written just about everywhere on every piece of
equipment from Tokyo to Berlin. Quite a few Korean War vets saw it and even
some Vietnam vets went through the "Kilroy Was Here" episode. Did you ever
wonder how it all got started?
Kilroy was a 46-year old shipyard worker from Halifax, Massachusetts and,
during the war, he worked as a checker at the Fore River Shipyard in nearby
Quincy. His job was to go around and check on the number of rivets
completed. Riveters were on piece-work and got paid by the rivet. Kilroy
would count a block of rivets and put a check mark in chalk, so the rivets
wouldn't be counted twice. When he went off duty, the riveters would erase
the mark. Later on, an off-shift inspector would come through and count the
rivets a second time, resulting in double pay for the riveters.
One day Kilroy's boss called him into his office . The foreman was upset
about all the wages being paid to riveters, and asked him to investigate. It
was then that he realized what had been going on.
The tight spaces he had to crawl in to check the rivets didn't lend
themselves to lugging around a paint can and brush, so Kilroy decided to
stick with chalk. He continued to put his check mark on each job he
inspected, but he added "Kilroy Was Here" in king-size letters next to the
check. Once he did that , the riveters stopped wiping away his marks.
Ordinarily the rivets and chalk marks would have been covered up with paint.
With war on, however, ships were leaving the Quincy yard so fast that there
wasn't time to paint them. As a result, Kilroy's inspection "trademark" was
seen by thousands of servicemen who boarded the troopships the yard
produced. His message apparently rang a bell with the servicemen, because
they picked it up and spread it all over Europe and the South Pacific.
Before the war's end, "Kilroy" had been here, there, and everywhere on the
long haul to Berlin and Tokyo. Along the way, someone added the sketch of
the chap with the long nose peering over the fence, and that became part of
the Kilroy message.
To the unfortunate troops outbound in those ships, however, he was a
complete mystery - all they knew for sure was that he had "been there
first." As a joke, U.S. servicemen began placing the graffiti wherever they
landed, claiming it was already there when they arrived.
Kilroy became the U.S. super-GI who had always "already been" wherever GIs
went. It became a challenge to place the logo in the most unlikely places
imaginable (it is said to be atop Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the
underside of the Arch De Triumphe, and even scrawled in the dust on the
And as the war went on, the legend grew. Underwater demolition teams
routinely sneaked ashore on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific to map the
terrain for the coming invasions by U.S. troops (and thus, presumably, were
the first GIs there). On one occasion, however, they reported seeing enemy
troops painting over the Kilroy logo! In 1945, an outhouse was built for the
exclusive use of Roosvelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference.
The first person inside was Stalin, who emerged and asked his aide (in
Russian), "Who is Kilroy?."
How did we find out who the real "Kilroy" was? In 1946 the American Transit
Association, through its radio program, "Speak to America," sponsored a
nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy, offering a prize of a real
trolley car to the person who could prove himself to be the genuine article.
Almost 40 men stepped forward to make that claim, but James Kilroy brought
along officials from the shipyard and some of the riveters to help prove his
authenticity, and won the trolley car, which he gave it to his nine children
as a Christmas gift and set it up in the Kilroy front yard for a playhouse.
Below, one of the WW II era's most popular comic figurines: a pregnant girl
standing on a pedestal bearing the legend "Kilroy Was Here."