Thursday, April 21, 2005

"Kilroy Was Here"

Kilroy. The little cartoon bald head, peering over a fence that hid everything except his eyes and his long U-shaped nose... and sometimes his fingers, gripping the top of the fence. And his proclamation, "Kilroy was here."
Graffiti itself goes back to ancient times. Graffiti is found in the ruins of Pompeii, on the walls of ancient Jerusalem, in ancient Egypt. Kilroy follows a long tradition, but was far more famous and all-present than any of them.
"Kilroy was here" emerged during World War II, appearing at truck stops, city restaurants, and in military boardrooms. However, the first appearances seem to have been on military docks and ships in late 1939.
"The mischievous face and the phrase became a national joke," according to author Charles Panati. In theory, he was a soldier, probably American, who travelled all over the world scrawling his immortal phrase. Clearly, the graffiti were scrawled by thousands of different soldiers, not a single one named Kilroy.

This Legend of how "Kilroy was here" starts is with James J. Kilroy, a shipyard inspector during WWII. He chalked the words on bulkheads to show that he had been there and inspected the riveting in the newly constructed ship. To the troops in those ships, however, it was a complete mystery — all they knew for sure was that he had "been there first." As a joke, they began placing the graffiti wherever they (the US forces) landed or went, claiming it was already there when they arrived.
Kilroy became the US super-GI who always got there first — wherever GI's went. It became a challenge to place the logo in the most unlikely places. It was said to be atop Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the underside of the Arch de Triumphe, and scrawled in the dust on the moon. An outhouse was built for the exclusive use of Truman, Stalin, and Churchill who were there for the Potsdam conference. The first person to use it was Stalin. He emerged and asked his aide (in Russian), "Who is Kilroy?"
WWII UDT (Under Water Demolition - later Navy Seals) divers swam ashore on Japanese held islands in the Pacific to prepare the beaches for the coming landings by US troops. They were sure to be the first GIs there! On more than one occasion, they reported seeing "Kilroy was here" scrawled on make shift signs or as graffiti on enemy pillboxes. They, in turn, often left similar signs for the next incoming GIs.
The tradition continued in every US military theater of operations throughout and following WWII.
In 1946 the Transit Company of America held a contest offering a prize of a real trolley car to the person who could prove himself to be the "real" Kilroy. Almost forty 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. James Kilroy won the prize of the trolley car which he gave it to his nine children as a Christmas gift and set it up in their front yard for a playhouse.


James J Kilroy was a ship inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, USA. It was his responsibility to check on how many holes a riveter had filled in a shift on any given day. In order to prevent double counting by dishonest riveters and to prove to his supervisors that he'd been doing his work, he began marking 'Kilroy was here' inside the hulls of the ships being built. He used yellow crayon so it would be easily visible; this way the off-shift inspectors wouldn't count the rivets more than once and pay the riveter for work he hadn't done.

Once the ship became operative, carrying military troops that were headed overseas and bound for the war, the phrase was a complete mystery. Why it was there and being found in such out of the way places made it all the more mysterious. All they could be certain of was that Kilroy, whoever he was, had 'been there first'. As a joke, troops began placing the graffiti wherever the US forces landed and claimed it had already been there when they'd arrived.

Whoever originated it, Kilroy quickly became the United States super GI who had always already been wherever men were sent by the military. The game quickly became a challenge to put the picture and slogan in the most unlikely places imaginable first.

According to author Charles Panati, it's supposed to be atop Mount Everest, on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, on the underside of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, on the Marco Polo Bridge in China, on huts in Polynesia, on a girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York and scrawled in the dust on the moon. Panati also wrote that an outhouse was built, during the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, for use exclusively by Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. The first of the three to utilize the facility was Stalin. Upon emerging he inquired of his nearby aide, 'Who is Kilroy?' This was supposedly overheard by a translator and is where the story comes from.

Kilroy and Hitler - The Rumour
Near the end of World War II, Adolf Hitler was absolutely and completely paranoid regarding one insurgent in particular. This individual seemed able to get into everything and anything that was thought to be secure in Nazi, Germany. He (Hitler) ordered his best men to begin actively searching for this super-spy and all troops were commanded to shoot and kill this menace.
The 'spy' Hitler was looking for was none other than Kilroy! GIs in occupied territory and spies in the German Army were vandalizing Nazi bases and equipment with the Kilroy logo and its well-known slogan. It wasn't intended as anything more than graffiti and a prank, but by the final year of Hitler's reign, he was convinced Kilroy could penetrate into any secure area and feared for his own safety thinking Kilroy was certain to kill him.

Oddly enough, as widespread as the Kilroy phenomenon was there is no concrete evidence to verify either when or where it began, nor who began it in each country (USA, England and Canada). In England, the Kilroy logo was known as Chad and his slogan consisted of 'Wot no...?' The blank was usually filled in with whatever there was a shortage of or whatever was being rationed at the time. The Oxford English Dictionary states that Chad's origin is obscure, but that British Cartoonist George Edward Chatterton may have created it. Though the James J Kilroy story seems to be the most likely point of origin for the 'Kilroy was here' legend, there is possible evidence of occurrences of the Kilroy logo much earlier than World War II.
Though Chad was popular in England, just as Kilroy was in the US military, still nobody (other than James J Kilroy) has stepped forward to claim him as their own invention, even though there were 26 men named Kilroy in the military during WW2. There was also a Canadian version known as Clem and in the late 1960s there was a version in Los Angeles, California that went by the name of Overby. Perhaps the theory of Kilroy being an unknown super soldier wasn't so far off after all...

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