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.
27 thoughts on ““Kilroy Was Here”-A Story from World War II”
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Thinking of Dad tonight. Remembering him drawing this symbol all the time.
That’s lovely…I’m glad it inspired a good memory for you!
Thanks for posting.
Great story on the genesis of “kilroy!” I loved it!!
I’m writing stories for my great grandkids, to tell them about CA after WW2.
As a child in ’45, I used chalk to write ‘Kilroy was Here’ on the sidewalks.
Your blog is wonderful. Thank you for your work and the great story.
Now I know I was not wasting chalk on a trivial person.
Thank you for your lovely comment, and how lucky your great-grandkids are that you are creating such a document. And yes, Kilroy is very worthy of chalk and stories! Kate
In gambling slang, Chalk means the betting favorite. Before electric and electronic anything, horse race bookmakers wrote the horses’ names and numbers and the odds and bets on them in chalk on large chalk boards. The favorites’ names would have far more chalk marks next to them than would the underdogs. You reminded me. Horseracing getting to be almost as much a thing of the past as Kilroy. Chalk-worthy. Sponge-worthy.
That’s so interesting…I did not know the gambling slang, and you are so right. Things are changing. Thanks for the additional information.
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Hello, I am a 86 year Canadian man, when I was a small lad about five or six years, during WORLD WAR 11, i can remember seeing quite a few of those signs, even though in lived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, I always knew they were meant for something of great importance, the bald headed person looking over the fence with his hands clutched to the top of the fence looking over to see that everything was alright, That to me then was a sign of being sure, wonderful idea. keep up the good work ,very very appreciated, to me, it seemed to me at the time as a child ,that everything was taken care of,.. THANK YOU and it was some .memories are never forgotten..
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I’m so happy this brought back good memories. Feeling that things were taken care of as a child was the best way to feel as there wasn’t much for a six-year-old to do. In reading my family letters from that era, I know that it was a terrifying time. Fortunately, the Allies prevailed.
I know schools today are trying to explain what is happening to Ukraine to children…there is no good way to describe war. Thank you for posting.
Thank you for your interesting “Kilroy” stories. My husband who served in the Korean War and knew about Kilroy from his brother who was in WW2 ,always drew a “Kilroy” on our kids school papers when we went to a school Open House so they would know he was there! Great memory.
I’m glad it brought good memories to you, and that’s a great story about your husband’s way to communicate with the kids after a school visit. What fun! Thank you.
I grew up hearing about Kilroy thru places and my dad served in the Korean war. During my college stint, I studied American History and there were different versions of the Kilroy story but yours is pretty accurate so thanks for sharing!
Thank you! Yes, when I started researching the story, I found–as you did–several variations. I’m glad you liked it.
My father was retired navy, and later managed in the vocational rehab machine shop at the VA Hospital. I later went on to own a chemical business that required me to travel to numerous manufacturing industrial sites throughout the Northeast. Your recount of the this bit of history was dead on accurate from everything that I had come to known of it for more than a half a century. I really wish that you would submit your article to Wikipedia and correct the miss information being provided on that page. Well written
Thank you so much…I don’t know much about submitting to Wikipedia, but I could look into it. I so appreciate your compliment!
If you look at the Kilroy character hard, you might, i believe, Grasp Kilroy’s little joke, or graphic pun: He was a rivet counter, well, having run a few rivets myself, that character is a Steel Dome Head Rivet waiting for a riveter to come along and flatten out the stem projecting down beneath the Dome, which in reality, would pass through two aligned holes in the overlapping steel plates, which is represented by a simple horizontal line and, thereafter, permanently bind the metal plates tightly together…. I believe the nature of this mans work was his inspiration. It makes perfect sense if his counting rivets, to draw one, symbolically, and as it happened humorously. A kind of accidental folk art that inspired thousands of Allied servicemen around the globe.
I just want to add to the above, i was casually researching the origins of this famous character when i came upon this site. I was unaware that Kilroy was named after a worker in a shipyard in Mass counting rivets! I don’t know if i am right, though think i am, and of course, others may have made the connection previously, though i have not seen anything on-line as yet.
I was introduced to Kilroy by my mother and her family who are from the East End of London. In 1944 GI’s were everywhere and no doubt, Kilroy was there…or rather, here which was there! I wish i could share this with them, but they are no longer here. My Grandfather in particular as he was a Plate Layer and Boiler maker, shipbuilding at Millwall docks on the Thames. A man that pounded ten thousand steel rivets in his day would have appreciated this…if I’m correct of course.