He is engraved in stone in the National War Memorial in Washington, DC.
It’s back in a small alcove where very few people have seen it. A bit
of trivia – even if you never heard of Kilroy before.
For the WWII 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. We didn’t
know why, but we had lapel pins with his nose hanging over the label and
the top of his face above his nose with his hands hanging over the
label. No one knew why he was so well known, but we all joined in!
So who the heck was Kilroy?
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 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. His job was to go around
and check on the number of rivets completed. Riveters were on piecework
and got paid by the rivet. He would count a block of rivets and put a
check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk, so the rivets wouldn’t be counted
twice. When Kilroy 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 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
the waxy chalk. He continued to put his check mark on each job he
inspected, but added ‘KILROY WAS HERE’ in king-sized letters next to the
check, and eventually added the sketch of the chap with the long nose
peering over the fence and that became part of the Kilroy message.
Once he did that, the riveters stopped trying to wipe away his marks.
Ordinarily the rivets and chalk marks would have been covered up with
paint. With the 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 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, he was a complete mystery; all they knew for sure was that
someone named Kilroy 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 Arc de Triomphe, and even scrawled in the
dust on the moon.
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 coming invasions by U.S. troops (and thus, presumably,
were the first GI’s 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 Roosevelt,
Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference. Its’ first occupant was
Stalin, who emerged and asked his aide (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 front yard in Halifax, Massachusetts.
So, now you know.