Weird History
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‘Kilroy Was Here’ May Have Been The Very First Meme, And It All Started In A WWII Shipyard

April 21, 2020 93.3k views12 items

From the hulls of ships to the sides of trucks to the walls of bathroom stalls across the world - and even engraved into national monuments - one iconic phrase has appeared in seemingly every place across the globe: "Kilroy was here." Along with a cartoon of a bald man with a big nose peering over a wall, the famous declaration took root during WWII and remained popular among soldiers through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and up to today.

As the term spread, one question remained: Who is this Kilroy? How did this trend start, and why is it so popular? Scholars and historians have spent decades tracing its roots and formulating theories, and yet, real answers have remained as elusive as the cartoon Kilroy himself.

  • Graffiti Of A Man With A U-Shaped Nose Peeking Over A Fence Began Popping Up Everywhere During WWII

    During America's involvement in WWII - both in the Pacific Theater against Imperial Japanese Military forces and in the European Theater alongside the Allied Forces and against Germany - a peculiar phenomenon seemed to follow troops wherever they went. Recurring, nearly identical graffiti began popping up in countries around the world, on walls, bathroom stalls, the sides of buses, and even on property belonging to the opposing military.

    The strange and semi-humorous image was almost always the same and featured what appeared to be a bald man with a large, bulbous nose peering over a wall or fence with the words "Kilroy Was Here" written underneath. Sometimes, the man - who many assumed was the cartoonish Kilroy in question - had one or two curly hairs, or his nose would be rounded in a different way, but the general image was always the same.

    The doodle appeared in far too many places and in too many different forms to be the work of one person or even an inside joke among a small group of friends. Instead, the vague connotation of what "Kilroy Was Here" meant took root in the minds of soldiers who found themselves far from home and risking their lives. Eventually, Kilroy became something thousands of people spread across the world as the conflict continued.

  • Photo: U.S. National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    GIs Allegedly Competed To Reach Extremely Remote Locations Before ‘Kilroy’ Arrived

    As the war progressed, the "Kilroy Was Here" graffiti gained a cult-like status, with American GIs stationed across the globe spreading it everywhere they went. It soon became increasingly hard to find places "Kilroy Was Here" wasn't already inscribed. Some believe this ubiquity, in turn, may have led to something of a competition among soldiers.

    To pass the time and mitigate the ever-present stress and danger of combat, GIs may have tried to find strange and increasingly remote locations before Kilroy arrived (that is to say, before someone else had already marked the place with the ever-present cartoon tag).

    Some historians also believe that Kilroy became a joke among GIs - they imagined Kilroy as a kind of supersoldier who was always ahead of everyone, no matter how distant or dangerous the destination may have been. They would mark the spot with the iconic cartoon, and pretend it had already been there, left by the mythical Kilroy, as an in-joke among their fellow soldiers. So, no matter where the military went, Kilroy had already been there.

  • James J. Kilroy, A Shipyard Inspector, May Have Unintentionally Started The Trend

    While the true origins of the Kilroy trend are still unknown, many believe it may have all begun with a man named James J. Kilroy, a safety inspector who worked at the Bethlehem Steel company's shipyard in Quincy, MA. He was tasked with inspecting warships that were under construction. To show that a certain section of the ship had been checked, he'd write in yellow crayon, "Kilroy Was Here."

    Kilroy told the American Transit Association in 1946:

    I started my new job with enthusiasm, carefully surveying every inner bottom and tank before issuing a contract. I was thoroughly upset to find that practically every test leader [the head of a work crew] I met wanted me to go down and look over his job with him, and, when I explained to him that I had already checked the job and could not spare the time to crawl through one of those tanks again, he would accuse me of not having looked the job over. I was getting sick of being accused of not looking the jobs over, and one day as I came through the manhole of a tank I had just surveyed, I angrily marked with yellow crayon on the tank top, where the tester could see it, "Kilroy was here."

    According to a report in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in December 1946, Kilroy believed that "the 14,000 shipyard workers who entered the armed services were responsible for its subsequent worldwide use." Essentially, since Kilroy was inspecting sections of unfinished warships, his signature mark would most likely be seen by the men working in the yards, and they became familiar with the term without necessarily knowing who Kilroy was or what it meant that he had been there. When they went overseas, the term they'd all seen and grown familiar with went with them.

    The report in the Chronicle also explained that "As far as the American Transit Association is concerned," Kilroy is indeed the man unwittingly responsible for the phenomenon. In way of recognition, they presented Kilroy with a streetcar, which was then "attached to the Kilroy dwelling, scene of an acute housing problem, to provide living quarters for six of the nine little Kilroys ranging in age from 6 months to 15 years."

  • One 1948 Article Alleged The Phrase Was Branded Everywhere From The Statue Of Liberty To The Arc de Triomphe

    As author and scholar Charles Panati once wrote of the "Kilroy Was Here" phenomenon, "The outrageousness of the graffito was not so much what it said, but where it turned up." If even a fraction of the legends are to be believed, it turned up absolutely everywhere. According to an investigative article in Collier's Magazine in 1946:

    "Kilroy was here" is lettered on the very tip of the torch of the Statue of Liberty, on the bullet-scarred base of the Marco Polo Bridge in China, and reverentially, near the eternal flame of the Unknown Soldier under the arc de Triomphe in Paris. When a famous steeplejack was hired recently to do some work on the topmost structure of the George Washington Bridge in New York, he found these words tauntingly inscribed in the most inaccessible section of one of the towers.

    Apparently, the phrase even showed up in places that essentially should have been impossible. For example, it was allegedly discovered carved into the wood railings of the HMS Queen Elizabeth by American soldiers boarding the ship for the first time during WWII. It was also supposedly responsible for breaking up an "anti-American riot" in China, when "a local police chief pointed to a faded 'Kilroy was here' chalked on the side of a building, thus graphically reminding the rioters that millions of Kilroys had contributed to their liberation."