Fact Check

Etymology of Kilroy Was Here

Did the phrase 'Kilroy Was Here' began as a ship inspector's mark in World War II?

Published Feb. 18, 2008


Claim:   The phrase "Kilroy Was Here" began as a ship inspector's mark in World War II.

Status:   Undetermined.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, February 2008]


In 1946 the American Transit Association, through its radio program, "Speak to America," sponsored a nationwide contest to find the REAL Kilroy, 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 evidence of his identity.

Kilroy was a 46-year old shipyard worker during the war. He worked as a checker at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy. His job was to go around and check on the number of rivets completed. Riveters were on piecework and got paid by the rivet.

Kilroy would count a block of rivets and put a check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk, so the rivets wouldn't be counted twice. When Kilroy went off duty, the riveters would erase the mark.

Later on, 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 all the wages being paid to riveters, and asked him to investigate. It was then that 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 checkmark 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 chap with the long nose peering over the fence and that became part of the Kilroy message. 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 war on, 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 Europe and the South Pacific. Before the war's end, "Kilroy" had been here, there, and everywhere on the long haul to Berlin and Tokyo.

To the unfortunate troops outbound in those ships, however, he was a complete mystery; all they knew for sure was that some jerk 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.

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 be atop Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the underside of the Arch De Triumphe, and even scrawled in the dust on the moon.)

And as the war went on, the legend grew. Underwater demolition teams routinely sneaked ashore on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific to map the terrain for the 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! In 1945, an outhouse was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference.

The first person inside 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 gave it to his nine children as a Christmas gift and set it up as a playhouse in the Kilroy front yard in Halifax, Massachusetts.

Origins:   The ubiquitous "Kilroy was here" messages found scrawled on surfaces throughout World War II have prompted many to ask, "Who was that Kilroy fellow anyway, and how could he have been everywhere?" While a number of theories have been mooted regarding his identity (including one that describes him as a GI fiancé on the lam with his USO girlfriend in hot pursuit, and folks along the way helpfully

Kilroy Was Here

scribbling "Kilroy was here!" as their way of helping his frustrated bride track down her man), the strongest claim of all is the one quoted above. While the purists don't quite yet feel comfortable giving it the thumbs up, many whose standards are less stringent view the tale about a shipyard inspector as the true origin of the phrase.

The story, as set forth above, mostly adheres to the information provided in news articles from the mid-1940s. While there are a few small deviations from what those old news accounts say, they are relatively minor.

James J. Kilroy was a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. His account, as he provided it in 1946 during a radio contest sponsored by the American Transit Association, stated that since 5 December 1941 he'd been employed there to vet the work done by others on the inner bottoms and tanks of ships being manufactured in that yard. Whereas the e-mailed account has it that riveters were erasing his check marks so as to be paid twice for their work, Kilroy's explanation makes no mention of such chicanery. It instead gives the impetus for his adding handwritten "Kilroy was here" attestations to areas he had examined as an expression of his growing sense of frustration with bosses who would not believe he had checked over their subordinates' work areas. As he put it, "I was thoroughly upset to find that practically every test leader I met wanted me to go down and look over his job with him, and when I explained to him that I had seen the job and could not spare the time to crawl through one of these tanks again with him, he would accuse me of not having looked the job over."

In a fit of pique one day, as he emerged from the hatch of a tank he'd just inspected, he scrawled in yellow crayon on its top — where testers could easily see it — "Kilroy was here." So, it is asserted, was born the phrase that would quickly travel the globe and be found in all sorts of unexpected places.

As for the graphic that has come to be associated with the phrase, it's not clear how the two came to work together. The little drawing of a man peeking over a wall, with just his eyes and nose (and sometimes his fingers) showing, began not as Kilroy but as Mr. Chad, a British bit of tomfoolery sometimes ascribed to cartoonist George Edward Chatterton. Its catchphrase, "Wot, no ____?", was used for all manner of japes, such as "Wot, no Spam?" or on the side of a glider, "Wot, no engine?"

With GIs everywhere participating in the "Kilroy" craze during the war, "Kilroy was here" proclamations turned up all over the place, a state of affairs that provides a possible clue as to how the

phrase and the cartoon came to be wed. The endless encounters with one scrawled "Kilroy" message after another would quickly have fostered a sense of always being under the watchful eye of the mysterious Kilroy. Given that American servicemen were rubbing shoulders with a great many Brits (both civilian and military), a fair number of them would soon have been exposed to Mr. Chad, an easily-drawn scribble of a fellow peeping over a barrier. The peering little man who seems to pop his nose over a fence to stare wide-eyed at what's going on would have been the perfect embodiment of the unstated secondary message of "Kilroy was here," which is "You are being watched."

There is one other small deviance between the e-mailed account and what the news of the day reported: the use that the Transit Association's street car was put to by James J. Kilroy and his family. He did not turn it over to his children as a Christmas gift of a freestanding playhouse in their back yard; the 50-foot car was instead 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.

Barbara "a sated desire named streetcar" Mikkelson

Last updated:   18 February 2008

  Sources Sources:

    The New York Times.   "Transit Association Ships a Street Car to Shelter Family of 'Kilroy Was Here.'"

    24 December 1946   (p. 18).

    The New York Times.   "Who Is 'Kilroy'?"

    12 January 1947   (Magazine, p. 30).

    The New York Times.   "James J. Kilroy Is Dead; Coined 'Kilroy Was Here'"

    26 November 1962   (p. 29).