“Kilroy was here” was an American symbol that became popular during World War II, typically seen in graffiti. Kilroy’s origin is hotly debated, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with GIs in the 1940s: a bald-headed man (sometimes depicted as having a few hairs) with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall. Like this:

“Kilroy” was the American equivalent of the Australian Foo was here which originated during World War I. In the UK, the version that became popular was Mr Chad or just Chad. The character of Chad may have been derived from a British cartoonist in 1938, possibly pre-dating Kilroy was here.  Other names for the character include Smoe, Clem, Flywheel, Private Snoops, Overby, The Jeep, and Sapo.

Jon Bourgetti on Quora.com says that Kilroy was real and worked as an inspector at a shipyard. Back during World War II, ship hulls were often riveted. Kilroy was a rivet inspector.  Riveters were paid by the number of rivets they installed. Rivet inspectors counted them and circled each counted rivet with a piece of chalk then chalked their name on the hull so that other rivet inspectors did not duplicate the count.

A problem arose when the riveters would scrub away the chalk marks so that they could be paid double. Kilroy would have none of it. Kilroy started using a wax crayon that could not be so easily eradicated, including the words Kilroy was here. The crayon writing remained as the marked ship hull was passed down the assembly line, much to the amusement of shipyard workers. They created the iconic funny Kilroy sketch and started scrawling it on cargo headed for Europe. Apparently, the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum know all about it – they have a Kilroy display and a photo of Kilroy, although I haven’t been able to find it yet.

But aKilroy was here drawing can be found in two locations at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.   And, according to Mental Floss (here), although the Oxford English Dictionary writes Kilroy off as a mythical person, dozens of real people claimed to be the doodle’s namesake in 1946, when the American Transit Association (ATA) held a radio contest to establish the origin of the phrase. One of them was James J. Kilroy, who worked at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts during the war inspecting the work done by others on the tanks and hulls of warships.

What do you think? Is Kilroy a figment of someone’s imagination or was he as real as the watery monster found from time to time on a Loch in Scotland?

Martin Pollins
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