Kilroy's origin is finally revealed

  • Trivia Too
    Trivia Too

    There is a page in my new book in which I write about “Kilroy Was Here.” In one of the letters that I had written to Christine, I tell her how no matter where we traveled, we saw that someone had made a mark that said, “KILROY WAS HERE,” and drew a picture of a quaint little man with a long nose looking over a fence. If we didn’t see that, it wasn’t surprising for one of our men to write it on the side of a barn, fence, or any other spot. None of us really knew the story of who Kilroy was.
    For the World War II generation, this will bring back memories. For you younger folks, it’s a bit of trivia that is a part of our American history. Anyone born in 1913 to about 1950 is familiar with Kilroy. No one knew why he was so well known, but everybody seemed to get into it. So, who was Kilroy?
    The war was over, and it was in 1946 that the American Transit Association, through its radio program, “Speak to America,” held a nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy. They offered a prize of a real trolley car to the person who could prove himself to be the genuine Kilroy. Almost 40 men came forward to make the claim, but only James Kilroy from Halifax, Massachusetts, had evidence of his identity.
    “Kilroy” was a 46-year-old shipyard worker during the war who worked as a checker at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. His job was to go around and check the number of rivets completed during a shift. Riveters were on piecework and got paid by the rivet. Kilroy would count a block of rivets and put a check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk to ensure that the rivets weren’t counted twice. When Kilroy went off duty, riveters would erase the marks. Later, an off-shift inspector would come through and count the rivets a second time, resulting in double the pay for many riveters.
    One day, Kilroy’s boss called him into his office. He was upset about all the wages being paid to the riveters. He asked Kilroy to investigate. It was then that Kilroy realized what had been going on. The tight spaces on the ship that he had to crawl in to check the rivets didn’t lend themselves to lugging around a paint can and a brush, so Kilroy decided to stick with the waxy chalk. He continued to put his original check mark on each rivet that he inspected, but he now added “KILROY WAS HERE” in king sized letters next to the check mark for a job. Eventually, he added the sketch of “the chap with the long nose peering over the fence” that became part of Kilroy’s message.
    Once Kilroy did that, the riveters stopped trying to wipe away his marks. Ordinarily the rivets and chalk marks would have been covered up with paint. But, during the war, ships were leaving the Quincy, Massachusetts, Shipyard 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 that were 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 war’s end, “Kilroy” had been here, there, and everywhere on the long hauls to Berlin and Tokyo. To the troops outbound in those ships, however, Kilroy was a complete mystery; all they knew for sure was that someone named Kilroy had “been there first.” As a joke, United States 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, on the Statue of Liberty, on the underside of the Arc de Triomphe, and even scrawled in the dust on the moon. Furthermore, in 1945, an outhouse was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference. Its first occupant was Stalin, who emerged and asked his aid in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”
    To help prove his authenticity in 1946, James Kilroy brought along officials from the shipyard and some of the riveters. He won the trolley car, which he gave to his nine children as a Christmas gift and set it up as a playhouse in the Kilroy yard in Halifax, Massachusetts.