Years later, bored in High School History, I started drawing the little guy again. My text books were covered in brown paper bags, of course, so I always had a ready canvass for doodles. I drew the bald man, fingers slipping over the wall, and wrote Kilroy Was Here next to my cartoon. It was then that it dawned on me how odd it was. Who was Kilroy? Why did my grandpa give him such a name? I went home and asked my mom about it and she said, “Oh that’s just something that was popular during the war.”
My curiosity wasn’t piqued enough to ask more questions or do more research. Again, I just thought it was a cute cartoon with a strange name. But lately I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World, and Kilroy popped into my brain again. It dawned on me that Kilroy was more than just a cartoon, but what did he really represent?
Kilroy, as pictured above, is mainly a phenomenon of World War 2 and associated with American GIs. Yet, he became quite culturally conspicuous. Here are a few places where "Kilroy" is said to have showed up over the years:
•The Arc de Triomphe in Paris
•The Statue of Liberty
•The surface of the Moon
•The Great Wall of China
The origins of Kilroy are a bit mysterious, and there are several legends. The story most widely accepted involves an inspector from Massachusetts who started writing “Kilroy Was Here” in chalk (sans the graphic) after he inspected the rivets on various craft:
“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 James Kilroy brought along officials from the shipyard and some of the riveters to help prove his authenticity, and won the trolley car, which he gave it to his nine children as a Christmas gift and set it up in the Kilroy front yard for a playhouse.”
The story sounds plausible enough and is quite charming, on first glance. But let’s look at it further: “40 men stepped forward with stories stating that they were the Kilroy on which the legend was based. However, James Kilroy had the most compelling story.” James won because he had the most compelling story. It does not say that James was the original and true Kilroy – he just had the most compelling story.
In fact, that very story has been altered – not greatly – but just enough to provide room for doubt. Apparently, the original story differed from the one reported in several key aspects. For one, James claims to have left the mark “Kilroy was here” as a middle finger to his bosses, who always made him repeat his inspections, thus wasting his time and energy. This was changed to say that the riveters themselves inspired James to leave the mark as a response to their sneaky ploys to pretend they did more work than they actually did.
Another significant factoid that differs from the report is how James used his prize:
“He did not turn [the trolley] 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.”
The significance should be obvious. 40 men stepped up claiming to be the original story. All were incentivized by the receipt of a sizeable prize – a 50-foot trolley car. James was in need of larger living quarters. Thus, he had great motive to win the contest. Now, that is not to say that he is not THE Kilroy. In fact, there may not even be a single originator.
In fact, the cartoon part of the graffito has a different origin from the “Kilroy Was Here” slogan attached to it:
“According to Dave Wilton, it is originally British, named Mr. Chad, and apparently predates Kilroy by a few years. It commonly appeared with the phrase ‘Wot, no ____?’ underneath, with the blank filled in by whatever was in short supply in Britain at the time--cigarettes, Spam, etc. The Oxford English Dictionary lists Chad's origin as ‘obscure’ but it may have been created by British cartoonist George Edward Chatterton.”
Per the Straight Dope article, Mr. Chad and Kilroy met and merged sometime during WW2, with an American phrase appearing under a British drawing. A Snopes article explains:
“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.’
Notice how the story has changed in meaning? James Kilroy won the contest with his story of thumbing his nose at authority. The report changed it to James out-witting the workers who were trying to pull one over on the inspector. Now, we have an explanation of the slogan/cartoon as being a multi-national device put in place to warn soldiers of being watched. It seems this is much more than just a cute cartoon.
If more than a cartoon, what really did Kilroy represent? According to the Snopes article, “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.” The Washington Times agrees with this analysis: “Over time, the phrase came to mean there was no place so remote that the U.S. military could not reach it.”
“No place so remote that the U.S. military could not reach it” is both a morale booster and a creepy notion. On the one hand, knowing you’re not the first person to do something scary (like, say, attempt a jump off a tall bridge) might give you courage that you’ll survive. But, if the military is really everywhere, then there is the feeling that, truly, “You are being watched.” Another aspect of this to consider, however, is that it is obvious from the fecundity of the symbol that one person cannot be responsible for the entire dissemination. Thus, there must have been a sense of delight in being the first to write “Kilroy Was Here,” otherwise, the symbol would not have made its way to Mount Everest or the surface of the moon. Additionally, it had to have been a symbol of camaraderie - whether such brotherhood foments over a shared laugh or a shared sense of pain and fear matters less than the relationship-building itself.
There are many more interesting analyses about Mr. Chad, Kilroy, Smokey Stover, and Mr. Foo (for a good discussion of Foo, see: https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc3092). In the final analysis, Kilroy has several layers of meaning, and many individuals were involved. Likely, the meaning changed and evolved per individual and over time. The symbol seemed to fit whatever subconscious need was generated during and after a horrific war. What may have started as a worker’s chalk mark could easily have transmuted into They’re Watching You over the course of such a war. And what began as a symbol of and within the war could easily have become a cultural tattoo, stamped on the conscience of one generation, into one that spans several nations and several generations.
I think the most valuable thing about Kilroy is that he’s something a grandfather can share with his granddaughter and she, in turn, will find out more about her grandpa and world history.