The Story Behind the Phrase "Kilroy Was Here"

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For a few years during and after World War II, he was ubiquitous: a doodle of a big-nosed man, peering over a wall, accompanied by the inscription "Kilroy was here." At the height of his popularity, Kilroy could be found just about everywhere: in bathrooms and on bridges, in school cafeterias and on homework assignments, in the holds of Navy ships and painted on the shells of Air Force missiles. A classic Bugs Bunny cartoon from 1948, "Haredevil Hare," shows just how deeply Kilroy had penetrated into pop culture: thinking he's the first rabbit to land on the moon, Bugs is oblivious to the slogan "Kilroy was here" prominently etched on a rock behind him.

The Prehistory of "Kilroy Was Here"

Where did the meme—and that's exactly what it was, 50 years before the invention of the internet—"Kilroy was here" come from? Well, graffiti itself has been around for thousands of years, but the Kilroy drawing seems to have derived from a similar graffito, "Foo was here," popular among Australian servicemen during World War I; this was also a depiction of a big-nosed cartoon figure peering over a wall, but it was not accompanied by any words.

Around the same time Kilroy was popping up in unexpected places in the U.S., another doodle, "Mr. Chad," was appearing in England. The Chad doodle may have derived from the Greek symbol for Omega, or it may have been a simplified adaptation of a circuit diagram; whatever the case, it carried the same "someone is watching" connotation as Kilroy. At some point shortly before the outbreak of World War II, it seems, Foo, Chad and Kilroy merged their memetic DNA and mutated into the classic "Kilroy was here."

Where Did "Kilroy" Come From?

As to the derivation of the name "Kilroy," that's a matter of some dispute. Some historians point to James J. Kilroy, an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Braintree, MA, who supposedly wrote "Kilroy was here" on various parts of ships as they were being built (after the ships were completed, these inscriptions would have been inaccessible, hence "Kilroy"'s reputation for getting into impossible-to-reach locations).

Another candidate is Francis J. Kilroy, Jr., a soldier in Florida, sick with the flu, who wrote "Kilroy will be here next week" on the wall of his barracks; since this story only appeared in 1945, though, it seems doubtful that Francis, rather than James, was the source of the Kilroy legend. (Of course, it's also possible that neither James nor Francis Kilroy were involved in any way, and that the name "Kilroy" was conjured up from scratch by a bored G.I.)

At this point, we should mention a 2007 "documentary," Fort Knox: Secrets Revealed, which aired in 2007 on the History Channel. The premise of the show is that Fort Knox was loaded with gold in 1937, but only made accessible to the public in the 1970's—so the producers at the History Channel could uncork part of the fort's innards and visit a time capsule of pre-war America. In the documentary, "Kilroy was here" can be seen written on a wall inside the vault, which would imply that the origin of this meme dates to no later than 1937. Unfortunately, it was later revealed by one of the show's consultants that the vault footage was "recreated" (i.e., completely made up), which should make you think twice about the historical accuracy of anything aired on this cable channel!

"Kilroy Was Here" Goes to War

The four years of World War II were a tough, dangerous, and often lonely slog for America's servicemen, who needed any form of entertainment they could get. In this regard, "Kilroy was here" functioned as a morale booster—when U.S. soldiers landed on a beachhead, they would often see this meme inscribed on a wall or fence nearby, presumably planted there by an advance reconnaissance team. As the war progressed, "Kilroy was here" became an emblem of pride, carrying the message that no place, and no country, was beyond the reach of America's might (and especially not if "Kilroy was here" happened to be painted on the side of a missile penetrating deep into enemy territory).

Amusingly, neither Josef Stalin nor Adolf Hitler, two dictators not known for their sense of humor, could quite make sense of "Kilroy was here." The famously paranoid Stalin was reportedly unsettled when he glimpsed a "Kilroy was here" graffito in a bathroom stall at the Potsdam Conference in Germany; presumably he instructed the NKVD to find the individual responsible and have him shot.

And "Kilroy was here" was inscribed on so many pieces of American ordinance recovered by the Germans that Hitler wondered if Kilroy was a master spy, along the lines of the yet-to-be-invented James Bond!

Kilroy has had a robust afterlife. Old memes never truly go away; they persist out of historical context, so that a six-year-old watching "Adventure Time" or reading a Peanuts comic strip from the 1970's will be aware of this phrase, but not of its origins or its connotations. It's not only the case that "Kilroy was here;" Kilroy is still among us, in comic books, video games, TV shows, and all sorts of pop-culture artifacts.