The Story Behind the World War II “Kilroy was here”

There are many timeless images that evoke the patriotism of World War II: posters of Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter; signs urging the public to buy war bonds; the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima; the exuberant sailor kissing the nurse – who was actually a dental assistant – in the middle of Times Square on V-J Day. They all conjure up the national memory of a country willing to make the sacrifices necessary to fight and win the war and then revel in the joy that went into celebrating its end.

There is another image, too, that brings to mind the spirit of World War II, but this image isn’t quite the same as the posters and photographs. The sketch – sometimes no more than graffiti – is of a bald man with a long, enormous protruding nose as he peeks over a wall. Written next to the drawing are the words, “Kilroy was here.”

But who was Kilroy, and where was he? Thanks to American soldiers fighting in World War II, Kilroy was just about everywhere they were, even at the beachheads that the American GIs stormed. Ubiquitous in the European front, the presence of Kilroy on captured American military equipment convinced Adolf Hitler that the image was a reference to an Allied spy operating at the uppermost levels of espionage. Kilroy, however, became a symbol of the American presence in the war zones of the world. Photographer Robert Capa was at the Battle of Bastogne in December 1944 when he spotted the words “Kilroy was stuck here” written on the walls of an abandoned barn. 

The legend of Kilroy even made its way to the high-level Potsdam Conference in 1945, when the Soviet Union’s Premier Josef Stalin, the story goes, was using the bathroom facilities reserved for him, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who replaced Winston Churchill, and U.S. President Harry Truman. There, Stalin found the Kilroy drawing on the wall of the bathroom, making him curious enough to ask his aides who Kilroy was. The story goes that Stalin was so disturbed by the mysterious presence that he may have ordered the Soviet secret police to find the perpetrator of the doodle and have him shot. 

There was seemingly no limit to Kilroy’s peregrinations and the boundaries of Earth could not confine him. A 1948 Bug Bunny cartoon, Haredevil Hare, shows Bugs in front of a moon rock bearing the legend, “Kilroy was here.”

The origins of Kilroy are not entirely clear, but there’s strong evidence that he shares kinship with similar British and Australian caricatures. The British version, known as Mr. Chad, shows a lookalike doodle who made his appearance throughout Great Britain, voicing his thoughts on the rationing that the British endured during the long years of the war. Mr. Chad’s “Wot? No tea?” or “Wot? No bread?” became a catchall response to the privations the plucky British suffered through the war en route to victory. There is some indication that Mr. Chad’s creator was George Chatterton, a cartoonist. The image began to appear late in 1938. Chad’s features consisted of a straggly lock of hair that looked like a misshapen question mark and a strong resemblance to his American cousin. He also seemed to share cartoon kinship with Popeye’s Alice the Goon and was in fact, also known as The Goon. Although the British Navy, Army and Marines all stake their claim to his creation, the Royal Air Force may actually deserve the credit.  In 1941, a man named Dickie Lyle was in an RAF training class in 1941 and, when the instructor left the room, he drew the diagram with “Wot? No leave?” beside it. 

Chad’s fame even outlived the war, showing up on Austrian trains with the query, “Wot? No Fuehrer?” 

But Kilroy may have an earlier ancestor than Chad. The image and phrase “Foo was here” followed in the wake of the  First Australian Imperial Force (1st AIF), showing up in chalk on the sides of railway cars upon which the 1st AIF traveled during World War I.  Foo may have been derived as an acronym for Forward Observation Officer, who was responsible for directing fire from mortar and artillery to a target. If that’s the case, then Kilroy’s parentage comes from Down Under. 

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Despite the passage of years since World War II, Kilroy remains an iconic drawing and phrase, so it’s not surprising that there have been various claimants to the Kilroy throne. Although the Oxford English Dictionary describes Kilroy as a mythical person, The New York Times gave James J. Kilroy credit as the forebear of Kilroy based on the results of a radio contest in 1946. Kilroy worked at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, where his job was to inspect the labor that had been done on the hulls and tanks of the warships. Kilroy was conscientious in his assignment, surveying the inner bottoms and tanks of the warships before a contract was issued. Inspectors would make a chalk mark after their inspection was finished, but the ship welders would sometimes erase the mark in order to be paid twice for the work they had done once. 

James Kilroy learned that the leader of all the work crews expected him to once again review the job in the presence the test leader.  Kilroy was too busy to do the inspection a second time but when he told the test leaders this, they claimed that he hadn’t thoroughly done his inspection.  Annoyed at the accusation that he was lax in his work, Kilroy’s aggravation may have led to the creation of one of the world’s most famous and enduring doodles. After having inspected a tank, Kilroy emerged from the manhole and, with a yellow crayon, wrote “Kilroy was here” on the tank top, where the test leader would be sure to see it.  

The men he worked with in the shipyards backed up his claim. As to why the doodle had spread from Massachusetts to the battlefields of World War II, Kilroy said he supposed that the workers in the shipyard who entered the war brought Kilroy the image with them when they were sent overseas. 

“Kilroy Was Here” on the WW2 Memorial in Washington DC [Credits: Dbking via Wikimedia]

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is dubious as regards the authenticity of the doodle’s provenance, but the American Transit Association, which sponsored the contest, was convinced they’d found the original Kilroy and awarded him the prize: a 12-ton trolley street car that Kilroy attached to his home for extra living space. Considering that he had nine children, the trolley car was no doubt a welcome addition to the residence. 

The actual origins of the doodle “Kilroy was here” may never be known, but Kilroy remains a beloved and recognized reminder of how Americans at war, despite the dreadful carnage that they faced, managed to bring a quirky bit of humor along with them as they fought their foes.  When the National World War II memorial was erected in Washington DC in 2004, Kilroy – you guessed it – was there. He can be spotted on the engraving on the memorial’s Delaware and Pennsylvania pillars, behind the golden gates.