Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How the Lemon was Invented

Lemons How do you make a lemon?  Silly question, isn’t it?  You just take the seeds out of one and plant them, and wait for the tree to come up, right?  That’s true, but it hasn’t always been that easy.  Lemons today are a widely cultivated citrus fruit, with a flavor used in cuisines of countries where no lemon tree would ever grow.  You might think that it was just a matter of ancient peoples finding the trees, enjoying their fruit and growing more of them, but that’s not true.  The lemon is a human invention that’s maybe only a few thousand years old. The first lemons came from East Asia, possibly southern China or Burma.  (These days, some prefer to refer to Burma as Myanmar .  I’ll try to stay out of that controversy here and stick to fruit.)  The exact date of the lemon’s first cultivation is not known, but scientists figure it’s been around for more than 4,000 years.  The lemon is a cross breed of several fruits.  One fruit is the bitter orange, best known in the west for

Origins of the Word Hoser, eh?

Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as cultural icons Bob and Doug McKenzie These days we often hear Canadians referred to as “Hosers”.  It’s a strange word, and it sounds a little insulting, but it’s sometimes used more with affection than malice.  Any such word is difficult to use correctly, especially if you don’t belong to the group the word describes.   I can’t say I feel comfortable throwing the word around, myself, but I can offer a little information about it that might shed some light on what it means. First off: is it an insult?  Yes… and no.   The word hoser can be used as an insult or as a term of endearment; the variation hosehead , is certainly an insult.  It’s a mild insult, meaning something like jerk or idiot or loser .  Its origin is unclear, and there are several debatable etymologies of the word.  One claims that it comes from the days before the zamboni was invented, when the losing team of an outdoor ice hockey game would have to hose down the rink in or

Bananadine

A cheap, easy high.  Just watch your step. In the late 1960s, recreational drugs were becoming more popular than ever in the United States.  They were promoted and celebrated by the counterculture.  Marijuana and cocaine were widely used, as were hallucinogens like psilocybin and LSD.  Most of these drugs were processed plants and/or chemicals, but marijuana was pretty much rolled and smoked in its natural form.  Its only processing was drying it out, just like tobacco.  40% of Americans smoked tobacco, and it was perfectly harmless (except for increased risk of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, etc.)  “How can you ban a plant?” defenders of marijuana asked.  “It’s a dangerous, addictive plant!” its detractors replied. Defenders of marijuana wanted to move the fight to their territory: you can’t ban a plant.  That’s why the discovery of bananadine was so important.  It, too, came from a plant.  It was a hallucinogen, like the synthetic LSD.  Bananadine was found