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Kilroy Was Here

As American troops made their way across Europe and the Pacific on their way to defeating the Axis, they were joined by someone else who seemed to follow them everywhere: Kilroy.  No one is exactly sure who Kilroy is, but there are pictures, and plenty of them—all of them cartoons.  Kilroy was a cartoon of either a bald or a balding man peering over a wall or a fence.  You can see his fingers on the wall, and his cartoonishly large nose stretches even farther than his fingers.  Invariably scrawled beneath this drawing came the legend “Kilroy was here.”

Kilroy was a meme that predates the internet, and even the very existence of the word meme.  It was easy to spread around, since anyone could copy the simple phrase, and you didn’t need especially strong art skills to copy the cartoon.  For much of the mid-20th century, Kilroy seemed to be everywhere.

Kilroy was in the Vietnam War (left), and earlier in Europe during World War II (right).

Kilroy was all over the place during World War II, in fact!

“Kilroy was here” certainly made its mark on the world during World War II.  It’s unclear exactly where it comes from or who the original Kilroy was (if there was such a person).  There are some World War II service personnel named Kilroy who are thought to perhaps be the original Kilroy, but there’s no way to substantiate it.  Suffice it to say, Kilroy was a symbol used by American servicemen that was seen by many as a morale booster, as the monument above states.

Just who Kilroy was is at best unclear.  One is that he was James J. Kilroy, an American shipyard inspector during World War II.  The story goes that as he would inspect ships, he would scrawl “Kilroy was here” to note that he’d already inspected that part.  While James J. Kilroy was a real person, and while it’s quite possible he did this, there’s nothing that substantiates that he was the first person to do it, and wasn’t just riding the crest of a meme that already existed.

Another origin story suggests that the original Kilroy was Sergeant Francis J. Kilroy, who couldn’t appear in his barracks in Boca Raton, Florida, because he was sick with the flu.  Sgt. Kilroy’s friend, Sgt. James Maloney, is said to have written on a bulletin board “Kilroy will be here next week.”  Eventually Sgt. Kilroy showed up and soon shipped out.  Sgt. Maloney is said to have written “Kilroy was here” several times after his friend had gone.  Again, while this might well have happened, there’s nothing that suggests it was the cause of the meme instead of a joke that was inspired by the meme.

“Kilroy was here” is most likely a combination of earlier memes.  One component was the “Foo was here” meme, which was scrawled around Europe by Australian troops during World War I.  It worked in much the same way as the “Kilroy was here” meme, though it wasn’t accompanied by a cartoon.  Later versions of it featured the “Kilroy” cartoon with the “Foo was here” legend, but the cartoon wasn’t Australian in origin.

In fact, the cartoon is English.  He originally made his appearance as “Mr. Chad”, shortly before the outbreak of World War II, possibly (but not certainly) the invention of British cartoonist George Chatterton.  The cartoon was originally a response to shortages caused by rationing.  The captions under the drawing would contain a phrase like “Wot, no tea?” or “Wot, no petrol?”  What’s most likely is that American servicemen added the “Kilroy was here” legend to the English cartoon, possibly taking inspiration from the Australians.  It’s impossible to trace the origin with any certainty.  It’s hard to credit the Australians for coming up with the idea, either.  They weren’t the first invading army to announce their presence with graffiti.  Napoleon’s armies carved names and dates all over the monuments of Egypt when they invaded in 1799. 

Mr. Chad bemoans another shortage in Britain, circa 1939.

During peacetime, Kilroy’s ubiquity remained.  It was a popular graffito in America afterward, and remained lodged in the American consciousness for decades.  Even those of us born after World War II would see the message, and sometimes the cartoon, and have no idea what it was supposed to mean.  The phrase was used as the title of Styx’s 1983 concept album, which told the story of Robert Orin Charles Kilroy, who fought against an imagined fascist government, the Majority for Musical Morality (MMM), which outlawed rock music, of course.  The album didn’t refer to the cartoon, apart from borrowing its legend, but the fact that the legend was so commonly known made it an attractive choice.

Bugs Bunny in Chuck Jones’ “Haredevil Hare”, 1948, strolling past America’s most famous graffito, scrawled on a moon rock.  (©Warner Brothers)

Cover of the 1983 album “Kilroy Was Here” by Styx.  

Kilroy silently persists on into 2013 in the Adventure Time episode “Too Old”.

After World War II, stories explaining the murky origins of Kilroy persisted, though none of them have ever been substantiated.  One popular tale involves Premier Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union saw the phrase written in the VIPs’ bathroom at the Potsdam Conference.  He is said to have asked his aides to find out “Who is Kilroy?”  They came back with no answer.  They shouldn’t feel so bad, though.  To this day, no one really does know.  All we know is that Kilroy was here (and we can’t really be sure about that, either!)

Music video for Styx’s hit song Mr. Roboto, from “Kilroy Was Here”, 1983


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