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 93.5k views12 items
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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.

  • Photo: U.S. Government Printing Office / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hitler Allegedly Caught Wind Of Kilroy And Feared He Was An Allied Spy

    While the "Kilroy Was Here" fad became commonplace for the US Armed Forces and became a way to stave off fear and boredom whiel instilling a sense of camaraderie in even the farthest corners of the globe, it was truly baffling for many among the opposing armies. For example, some sources claim that Japanese forces found the term scrawled on a bombed-out tank and were so confused about its meaning that they took their concerns to senior officers.

    One man who likely didn't see the humor in the proto-meme was Adolf Hitler. According to legend, the existence of the "Kilroy Was Here" image was brought to his attention by a number of his commanders, who kept finding the words scrawled on US ordinances that the Third Reich managed to recover.

    Commanders also told Hitler that the phrase had been discovered in many remote locations, often before the American military had even arrived, which allegedly led Hitler to conclude that the Kilroy in question must be some sort of spy or supersoldier making his mark across Europe. Some reports even claim that Hitler tasked some of his best men with finding and killing the mysterious Kilroy. Though this legend is fascinating, the tales of Hitler's interest in the phrase may be highly embellished, to say the least.

  • Photo: A. Oshurkov / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    One Story Claims Joseph Stalin Saw The Doodle In A Bathroom And Demanded To Know Kilroy’s Identity

    The wild and dubious reputation of the Kilroy tag was well-earned. It truly did seem to appear everywhere, and one place it appeared with great frequency was the walls of bathroom stalls. So, unsurprising to anyone familiar with the Kilroy lore, the doodle eventually wound up in some of the most secure, exclusive bathroom stalls in the world.

    According to a possibly apocryphal story, "Kilroy Was Here" popped up during the Potsdam Conference, a post-WWII meeting between the so-called Big Three: President Harry Truman, UK Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. According to a 1946 Collier's magazine article, different ranks of soldiers used different bathrooms, and the latrines got nicer as the rank of soldier that used them increased. The best of the best was a "breath-taking, ballroomlike marble chamber for the VIPs." Armed guards "were posted on this VIP bathroom day and night," yet not even they could stop Kilroy.

    "On the second day of the conference, Generalissimo Stalin came popping out of this magnificent lavatory, spouting in Russian to one of his aides," the Collier's article reported. "An American interpreter standing nearby swore to a Tank correspondent that what Stalin was trying to find out was: 'Who is this Kilroy?'"

  • Kilroy Was Originally A Doodle Known As ‘Mr. Chad,’ Which Began In Britain

    As we know it today, the "Kilroy Was Here" image includes both the phrase itself and the balding, bulb-nosed man peering over a wall. However, it seems that the image is likely a combination of two elements that were eventually brought together - long before the man in the cartoon became widely known as Kilroy, he went by a completely different name.

    The doodle itself began in Britain, where the character was known as Mr. Chad - or sometimes just Chad - and was attributed to cartoonist George Chatterton. The character was also drawn on walls in public places or appeared in newspapers, and would often include a saying below the face. These captions usually called out shortages during rationing, such as "Wot, no bread?" "Wot, no tea?" or "Wot, no petrol?"

    Given how frequently and closely American soldiers interacted with British soldiers and civilians, it's theorized that the GIs picked up the easily doodled image but nixed the cartoon's original sentiment, replacing it with the already popular "Kilroy was here." The blend of the two memorable and easily replicable elements then helped propel it across the globe.

  • Some Say The Figure Appeared In Australia Under The Name ‘Foo’ During WWI

    Years before Kilroy or Mr. Chad came into being, there was another bald cartoon fellow with a penchant for peering over walls. This version, known as "Foo," was a popular form of graffiti during WWI among Australian soldiers. It showed the same man looking over a brick wall, but with the remarkably similar phrase "Foo was here." 

    Many believe that the Foo character and drawing directly influenced the British character Mr. Chad and may have inspired the American character of Kilroy. However, there were some notable differences between the Australian Foo and his British and American counterparts. First of all, Foo didn't always sport the same bulbous nose, he was often drawn with a smile (instead of the more mysterious appearance of Mr. Chad and Kilroy, whose faces were almost half hidden), and his hands weren't always drawn holding onto the top of the wall. In general, the Foo character appeared to be popping up to show his head rather than cautiously peeking.

    Additionally, it appears that Foo was regarded as more of a playful or mischievous figure, causing trouble wherever he went or appearing at the site of trouble to take credit. By the time WWII began, he was still popular among the Royal Australian Air Force but had changed from a bald man into an impish, gremlin-like creature responsible for bad luck. The associated phrase also changed slightly to "Foo's been here."