Kilroy Was Here!
He’s engraved in stone in the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC – back in a small alcove where very few people have seen it. For the WWII generation, this will bring back memories. For younger folks, it’s a bit of trivia that is an intrinsic part of American history and legend.
Anyone born between 1913 to about 1950, is very familiar with Kilroy. No one knew why he was so well known….but everybody seemed to get into it. It was the fad of its time!
At the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC
So who was Kilroy?
In 1946 the American Transit Association, through its radio program, “Speak to America,” sponsored a nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy….now a larger-than-life legend of just-ended World War II….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 credible and verifiable evidence of his identity.
“Kilroy” was a 46-year old shipyard worker during World War II (1941-1945) who worked as a quality assurance checker at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts (a major shipbuilder for the United States Navy for a century until the 1980s).
His job was to go around and check on the number of rivets completed. (Rivets held ships together before the advent of modern welding techniques.) Riveters were on piece work wages….so they got paid by the rivet. He would count a block of rivets and put a check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk (similar to crayon), so the rivets wouldn’t be counted more than once.
A warship hull with rivets
When Kilroy went off duty, the riveters would surreptitiously erase the mark. Later, 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 unusually high wages being “earned” by 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 guy with the long nose peering over the fence….and that became part of the Kilroy message.
Kilroy’s original shipyard inspection “trademark” during World War II
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 World War II on in full swing, 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 the European and the Pacific war zones.
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.
As the World War II wore 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!
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 now be atop Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the underside of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, and even scrawled in the dust on the moon by the American astronauts who walked there between 1969 and 1972.
In 1945, as World War II was ending, an outhouse was built for the exclusive use of Allied leaders Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference. It’s 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
attached to the Kilroy home and used to provide living quarters for six of the family’s nine children….thereby solving what had become an acute housing crisis for the Kilroys.
The new addition to the Kilroy family home.
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And the tradition continues into the 21st century…
In 2011 outside the now-late-Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway house in
Abbottabad, Pakistan….shortly after the al-Qaida-terrorist was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs.
>>Note: The Kilroy graffiti on the southwest wall of the Bin Laden compound pictured above was real (not digitally altered with Microsoft Paint, as postulated by some). The entire compound was leveled in 2012 for redevelopment by a Pakistani company as an amusement park….and to avoid it becoming a shrine to Bin Laden’s nefarious memory.
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A personal note….
My Dad’s trademark signature on cards, letters and notes to my sisters and I for the first 50 or so years of our lives (until we lost him to cancer) was to add the image of “Kilroy” at the end. We kids never ceased to get a thrill out of this….even as we evolved into adulthood.
To this day, the “Kilroy” image brings back a vivid image of my awesome Dad into my head….and my heart!
Dad: This one’s for you!
OMG I’m so glad to know this backstory.
I heard Kilroy had the first Tumblr account!
I had no idea about this story, although I knew the phrase. This is so cool!
pre-internet memes are so fun to investigate.
there was one in minneapolis in the 90′s that i know the secret story about.
for a while, across the twin cities, you’d see the words SO EMPTY INSIDE everywhere, sometimes accompanied by a doodled food item like a piece of cake or a burger. i heard people speculating about it, and many didn’t connect the words with the food. they assumed it was just some doomy goth thing, and couldn’t figure out why it was everywhere, since doomy goths don’t usually go on statewide graffitti sprees.
but i was there for the beginning: an open mic night at the hard times cafe. the punks who mostly hung out there had lots of fun with open mic nights, and it was usually pretty entertaining, unlike the pretentious fare at other open mics. i myself usually did a bit of funny poetry, and when i’d had enough caffeine i’d freestyle improv dirty limericks from prompts. but once or twice per night someone didn’t read the room correctly and brought their serious face. usually some college boy with a guitar. on this particular night, it was a girl who was pretty much cosplaying ani di franco and put her mouth way too close to the mic as she spit her doomy doom doom poetry.
it was the type of stuff that high school kids write before they realize the concept of death is only shocking to high school kids, you know? nothing unusual except that it was SO over the top and she was SO serious about it, and the way she leaned into the mic so her teeth sometimes bumped it and every plosive spat static. we heckled at first, then just giggled, and then stared in reluctant respect for the sheer excess of her. and the very peak of this mountain of teen angst bullshit was the line, “so empty inside… nothing can fill it… BUT A BULLET.”
after she left the stage, there was a confused silence. then jj kidder, a long capering jester of a punk you couldn’t not love, said solemnly, “so empty inside… nothing can fill it… BUT A DONUT.” and the room fell apart.
apparently he actually wanted a donut, but he started a meme instead. by the next morning the graffitti had started showing up. if you said “so empty inside” to a tc punk, it was about guaranteed they’d finish with “nothing can fill it BUT A PORK CHOP” or some other random food item.
it took years for the meme to die. i was still seeing fresh graffitti a decade later. i’m not altogether sure that if i went and painted it on some underpass today it wouldn’t just start up again.
I’ve been Kilroy. 99 http://ift.tt/2wfPo8v
from Tumblr http://ift.tt/2fr8FKg