Kilroy Was Here
January 30, 2010

Kilroy was here is an American popular culture expression, often seen in graffiti. Its origins are open to speculation, but recognition of it and the distinctive doodle of "Kilroy" peeking over a wall is known almost everywhere among U.S. residents who lived during World War II and through the Korean War.

The "Kilroy was here" phrase appeared everywhere during World War II, but its origin did not become widely known until after the war had ended.

In 1946 the American Transit Association ran a contest to find out where and why the phrase originated. As it turned out, the winner was James J. Kilroy of Boston. It seems as if Kilroy was hired by Fore River shipyard on December 5, 1941 as a checker. His job was to count the rivet holes and then leave chalk marks where he had left off. It was on this basis that the riveter's piece of work was calculated.

Some of the riveters were not too honest and would erase the mark left by Kilroy. Thus, some of the rivet holes were counted twice. Kilroy got wind of this devious practice and proceeded to scrawl "Kilroy was here" on his rounds.

He reportedly left his mark on such famous Fore River vessels as the battleship, Massachusetts, now berthed permanently at "Battleship Cove", Fall River, Massachusetts, the Carrier, Lexington (II), and the heavy cruiser, Baltimore, as well as numerous troop carriers.

Kilroy had marked the ships themselves as they were being built—so, at a later date, the phrase would be found chalked in places that no graffiti-artist could have reached (inside sealed hull spaces, for example), which then fed the mythical significance of the phrase—after all, if Kilroy could leave his mark there, who knew where else he could go?

In later life Kilroy became a Boston City Councillor and state representative. He died on November 26, 1962.

There are many urban legends attached to the Kilroy graffiti. One states that Adolf Hitler believed that Kilroy was some kind of American super spy because the graffiti kept turning up in secure Nazi installations, presumably having been actually brought on captured Allied military equipment. Another states that Stalin was the first to enter an outhouse especially built for the leaders at the Potsdam conference. Upon exiting, Stalin asked an aide: "Who is this Kilroy?" Another legend states that a German officer, having seen frequent "Kilroys" posted in different cities, told all of his men that if they happened to come across a "Kilroy" he wanted to question him personally.

The graffiti is supposedly located on various significant or difficult-to-reach places such as on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, on the Marco Polo Bridge in China, in huts in Polynesia, on a high girder on the George Washington Bridge in New York, at the peak of Mt. Everest, on the underside of the Arc de Triomphe, scribbled in the dust on the moon, in World War II pillboxes scattered around Germany, on a tile in the bathroom of a Grainger in Baltimore, and around the sewers of Paris.

In tribute to its origin, 'Kilroy Was Here' is engraved in the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (see the photo below)