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Kilroy Was There

Updated on April 19, 2012

You don’t see them much anymore. It was a different time when the bald headed, big, nosed cartoon character peering over a fence could be found virtually on any surface it could be drawn on. The accompanying proclamation, "Kilroy was here," left many scratching their heads and wondering who this extensive world traveler could be.

The graffiti began appearing during World War II and there are countless theories of who he was and how the tradition got started. Some are more credible than others. The earliest sightings began in late 1939, usually on military docks and ships. An article in a December 1946 issue of the New York Times cited James J. Kilroy, a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, as the one responsible for getting the fad started.

Most inspectors would mark work they had inspected with a small chalk mark. However, welders found it easy to erase these marks in order to get paid twice for the same work. When Kilroy caught on he began scrawling "Kilroy was here" on items he inspected. His markings became a common sight around the shipyard and workers thought it amusing to apply it elsewhere such as at truck stops, restaurants and public restrooms.

When these workers were drafted or joined the military, the custom went to war with them. So, during the 1940s Kilroy seems to have practically been everywhere with thousands of soldiers putting the immortal phrase wherever they went. It wasn’t so much what they wrote that made an impression, but the places it turned up. Such places as the Statue of Liberty, the Marco Polo Bridge in China and New York’s George Washington Bridge are said to have been marked with it.

Perhaps what fueled its proliferation was the competition it generated in trying to be the first to discover a place Kilroy hadn’t already been. Airmen had contests to beat Kilroy to places around the globe. However, the practice wasn’t limited to use by military men. Apparently Kilroy was also a bit of a scamp as newspapers sometimes carried stories about pregnant women arriving at a maternity ward with "Kilroy was here" emblazoned on their stomachs.

There’s a story that made the rounds in July 1945 involving a summit meeting of the Big Three in Potsdam, Germany. According to the story, Truman, Attlee, and Stalin had had exclusive use of a private men’s room. Stalin was apparently first to visit the facility. Exiting the bathroom he immediately cornered one of his aides and engaged him in an excited conversation. A translator overheard Stalin ask, “Who is Kilroy?”

It’s interesting to note, the cartoon portion had been around several years before the "Kilroy was here" part was added. According to some researchers the character was originally British and called Mr. Chad. It was accompanied with the logo, "Wot, no ____?" The blank was to be filled in with whatever happened to be in short supply at the time. Sometime during the beginning of the war the two merged and the American version was substituted.

The mania peaked during the war. It remained popular into the 50s. As memories of the war faded into history, so did Kilroy.


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    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      PDXKaraokeGuy, I've never seen any references to it, but it does sound logical.

    • PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very interesting. I've seen the pictures and the text, but never knew what it was. Any idea if the reference to Kilroy in Styx's Mr Roboto is the same Kilroy? Well done! Enjoyable read!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      At the risk of showing MY age, if Kilroy ever makes a comeback, I'm sure today's youngsters will have the same reaction my daughter did a few years ago when I expressed a desire to attend the Aerosmith concert she and her friends were all excited about attending. Which was... "Why would YOU want to see Aerosmith? You're too old to enjoy their music, Mom!". Shoulda seen the look on her face when I said I'd heard all of A's "oldies" she'd hear that night when they were brand new. hehe ;D

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      I must be showing my age cuz I knew who he was when I was in grade school. LOL

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Been trying to get to this hub ever since I saw the notification!

      I haven't seen a Kilroy for years, but did put it on my own school papers, too, as a kid. Never knew the story behind it, just thought it was a "cool" thing to draw. Oddly, not long ago I was doodling, and yep, drew a Kilroy!

      Who knows **for sure** how or where Kilroy originated, but thanks for sharing his story!

      Voted up and awesome! ;D

    • Daffy Duck profile image

      Daffy Duck 5 years ago from Cornelius, Oregon

      The Styx--Mr Roboto "I'm Kilroy, Kilroy, Kilroy".

      I wondered where that came from.

    • Angelo52 profile image

      Angelo52 5 years ago from Central Florida

      Great information on Kilroy. I remember seeing this in some of the movies from the 50's about WW2. up +

    • profile image

      twodawgs 5 years ago

      Great bit of Americana!

    • justateacher profile image

      LaDena Campbell 5 years ago from Somewhere Over The Rainbow - Near Oz...

      As a child, I used to draw that figure and write that slogan on all of my papers - I never knew where it came from and don't remember why I started using it! This is great history!

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Paradise,the Canadian's had something of the sort, but it never became as famous as Kilroy.

    • profile image

      Joan Whetzel 5 years ago

      I love this story. I wondered where that phrase came from.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Interesting and kinda cute. I wonder was there actually graffiti as such before Kilroy? It's almost as though the Kilroy cartoon invented graffiti.