The words, “Kilroy was here,” alongside a drawing of a long-nosed, bald fellow peering over a fence still pop up occasionally on walls and buildings today. But the original legend of Kilroy dates to World War II and a man named James J. Kilroy (1902-1962), who lived in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Who was Kilroy?
The “Kilroy was here” story began at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts where Kilroy worked. During World War II the shipyard staff needed to increase production to turn out as many ships as possible for the war effort.
Kilroy’s job was as an inspector; one of the aspects of the process he checked were all the rivets that were involved in holding the ship together. They had to be put in properly and fastened solidly. As Kilroy made his inspections—often going into tight spaces and down into tanks—he counted the blocks of rivets as he went. He then used a waxy chalk to leave a checkmark as to the area that he had approved.
Riveters were paid on a piecework basis, with their pay calculated by the rivet. After Kilroy left for the day, the workers sometimes erased the mark so that the inspector on the next shift would come through and count their work for a second time. This would increase their pay.
After a time, one of the shipyard supervisors called Kilroy in to discuss the circumstances. The count of ship parts completed seemed below what it should be, considering the number of rivets inspected.
Puzzling Through the Rivet Count
Kilroy thought through the circumstances. He realized someone must have been tampering with his checkmarks. He considered the options. Using paint to make his mark would be tamper-proof, but it would be difficult to get in and out of some of the spots that needed to be inspected if he were carrying a paint can. He decided to try to maintain his system with an addition: He left his checkmark but began to leave “Kilroy was here” in over-sized letters to make the tampering more difficult. Later he added the sketch of the fellow peering over the fence.
This addition—and perhaps word-of-mouth around the Quincy shipyard—got a message through to the riveters: don’t tamper with the inspection count.
“Kilroy Was Here” Not Painted Over
Normally all inspection marks would have been covered when the ship was painted before launch. But because of the urgency of the war, ships began leaving the coast with “Kilroy was here” marked in various locations of the ship.
Servicemen everywhere began seeing the signature and drawing but they hadn’t a clue as to the meaning behind it.
“Kilroy was here” soon became a popular message to leave at various destinations. Before long, Kilroy’s mark had been noted throughout Europe and in the South Pacific. The men soon found it a favorite amusement to see how many places Kilroy could appear.
Some believe that “Kilroy was here” was a morale-builder as well. It seemed to give strength to the G.I.’s when they arrived at a new location and discovered that American soldiers already had been through the area.
After the war, the graffiti became so popular that it is said to have been written in places as varied as Mount Everest and the Arc de Triomphe. It is occasionally still written in random places today.
The Real Kilroy
As time went on, the public became curious about the origin of the story, and of course, few people knew of James Kilroy from Massachusetts.
In 1946 the American Transit Association ran a radio contest to identify the true Kilroy. A real trolley car was offered as the prize. About 40 men stepped forward with stories stating that they were the Kilroy on which the legend was based. However, James Kilroy had the most compelling story; he was awarded the trolley car.
By this time, he and his family lived in Halifax, Massachusetts, and the trolley car was reported to have been placed in his yard and enjoyed by his nine children. When Kilroy died in 1962, his fame was such that his passing was noted in an obituary in The New York Times.
Fittingly, “Kilroy was here” is written in two locations on the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
To read about a hero of World War II, check out Dorie Miller’s story. He was a “Negro Messman” who proved he was much more than that.