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 moon.)
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.