Was Kilroy here?

The story behind this famous symbol

Gather ’round, Sun Citians, and I’ll tell you a tale from World War II.

If you were a GI in the early forties, you no doubt remember one of the war’s most famous phrases – Kilroy Was Here. On this 46th anniversary of Memorial Day, let us reminisce a little.

Your military unit captured a town, and you found, or marked, a building, wall or tree, with the phrase, Kilroy was Here. You landed on a Pacific beach, and you found a sign, Kilroy Was Here. Word was, enemy soldiers put it there. The Kilroy legend quickly became cross-cultural and global.

Back home when you were a kid, you walked by a public building or school, and you probably saw painted letters, Kilroy was Here. Maybe you or your buddies put them there.

Kilroy was everywhere. The logo has showed up on the top of Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, on the underside of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and scrawled in the dust on the moon. It’s been seen on monuments in national parks and historical sites throughout the world.

One story has it that German intelligence officials found the phrase on captured American equipment. This supposedly led Adolf Hitler to conclude that Kilroy was the code name of a high-level Allied spy.

In 1945, a Florida newspaper published a report that a Sgt. Francis J. Kilroy Jr., wrote “Kilroy will be here next week” on a barracks bulletin board at an air base, while ill with the flu. This according to Wikipedia.

And here’s one that may top them all. At the Potsdam Conference involving President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin in 1945, it was rumored that Stalin found “Kilroy was Here” scrawled on a VIP bathroom wall, prompting him to ask his aides who Kilroy was.

But who was Kilroy? Where did this legend get started? Was it an offbeat corporate America ad campaign? Was it a Hollywood movie director’s hot flash? Was there ever a real Kilroy?

The Sun Day has talked to a number of Sun City residents about their Kilroy memories or activities. Most of them recalled seeing or hearing about the phrase when they were growing up, but none of them had any knowledge about the origin of the quirky phenomenon.

Until one day late last year. Dennis Quinn, a friend of this writer, sent an email that he got from a website called, “America Comes Alive! It’s answer to the question about a real Kilroy is an emphatic, “Yes, there definitely was a real Kilroy.”

It involved a man named James J. Kilroy (1902-1962) who lived in Quincy, Massachusetts. Kilroy worked at the shipyard in Quincy. It seems that the yard’s staff needed to increase production to turn out as many ships as possible for the war effort.

Kilroy worked as an inspector. One of his tasks was to check all the rivets that were involved in holding the ship together.

Kilroy counted the blocks of rivets and used a waxy chalk to leave a checkmark on the area that he had approved. Riveters were paid on a piecework basis, with their pay calculated by the rivet. After Kilroy left for the day, the workers sometimes erased his mark so that the inspector on the next shift would count their work for a second time, thus increasing their pay.

Pretty soon, supervisors noticed that the count of ship parts seemed below what it should be. Kilroy was asked to look into the matter, and he realized someone must have been tampering with his check marks. He decided to try to maintain his marking system with an addition: he left his check mark but began to leave “Kilroy was here” in over-sized letters to make the tampering more difficult. Later, he added the sketch of the fellow peering over the fence.

The addition – and perhaps word-of-mouth commentary around the shipyard – reportedly convinced riveters to stop tampering with the inspection count.

Normally, all inspection marks would have been covered when the ship was painted before launch. But because of the urgency of the war, ships began leaving the coast without a final coat of paint, with “Kilroy was here” marked in various locations. Servicemen everywhere began seeing the signature and drawing, but they hadn’t a clue as to the meaning behind it.

As they say today in social media, “Kilroy was here” went viral worldwide.

After the war, the public became curious about the origin of the story. In 1946, the American Transit Association sponsored a radio contest to identify the true Kilroy. A real trolley car was offered as the prize. About 40 men reportedly stepped forward with stories stating that they were the Kilroy on which the legend was based.

But James J. Kilroy of Quincy had the most compelling story, and he produced co-workers and friends who knew of his inspector activities at the shipyard. He was awarded the trolley car. His story has become the most widely accepted explanation about the “real Kilroy.”

When he died in 1962, his obituary was published in the New York Times. Eventually, according to America Comes Alive, “Kilroy was here” was written in two locations on the World War II memorial in Washington D.C.

During World War II, movie newsreels often portrayed Kilroy was here messages from far-flung destinations where American servicemen were serving.

“I saw newsreels showing Kilroy signs on tanks and on buildings in European towns,” said Burt Nevler, a resident of Sun City’s Neighborhood 26. “I remember laughing at one message that said, ‘Kilroy is coming, watch out.’ I heard about the contest and the trolley car, but mostly I just remember that the Kilroy phrase kept cropping up everywhere, around the world.”

Mike Seymour from Neighborhood 15 also remembers the phenomenon.

“I heard about it when I got in the service,” said Seymour, who served in an air refueling unit during the Vietnam War. “I remember some guys talking a lot about it. But I was probably too young to understand or follow a lot of the Kilroy stuff that occurred earlier.”

Carol Didrichson of Neighborhood 12 shared a similar sentiment.

“I remember seeing the phrase everywhere when I was growing up,” she said. “I saw it on movie cartoons, on fences and windows. But I never knew who Kilroy was.”

Bill Leggee, Neighborhood 21, also has memories of Kilroy.

“I used to see pictures of a guy looking over the wall, and we used to mimic it,” he said. “Kids pick up on this sort of thing quickly and run with it, and we were the same way.

Finally, the Sun Day has a question: was Rosie one of those riveters?

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