He sported a big elongated nose, a smooth bald head, beady eyes, and three to four fingers of each hand dangled over the imaginary line of an imaginary wall. A rather comical figure, yet pitifully ugly if symbolic of a real person, Kilroy quickly developed into one of the historic symbols of World War II.
He served in all theaters of operation and never failed to encourage the troops or provide them with the source for an immediate chuckle. The soldiers appreciated Kilroy and anticipated his appearance in the most unlikely of places. He would pop up on an ammo box, a large rock, the turret of a Sherman tank, beneath a B-17 bomber or on the wing of a P-38 Lightning. He hid in the ruins of buildings, emerged on a castle wall or the hull of a ship; Kilroy was everywhere, and Kilroy was here!
At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, three of the most powerful men in the world shared the same potty. An executive outhouse was built for the exclusive use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Union autocrat Joseph Stalin. Stalin was the first that needed to ‘go.’ Emerging from the outhouse, Stalin asked his aide-de-camp (in Russian), “Who is Kilroy?” Kilroy was everywhere!
Specially trained Marine recon units and Navy frogmen sneaked onto Japanese-held islands in the Pacific for pre-invasion intelligence. On one island an underwater demolition team reportedly discovered the Japanese ‘painting over’ a Kilroy logo. The question everybody asked, “If only Japanese inhabit the island, how did Kilroy get there?”
Better yet, who dreamed up Kilroy? The claim to fame goes to a man from Halifax, Massachusetts, James Kilroy, a rivet inspector at the Fore River shipyard in Quincy during the war. It was his obligation to check the completion of rivets since the riveters were paid by the number of rivets completed. After counting finished rivets, James check-marked a completed block with a piece of chalk to avoid a double-count.
While James was off duty, the riveters erased the chalk marks so an on-duty checker would count the rivets a second time; consequently the riveters received double pay. After being questioned by his boss about exorbitant riveter wages, James investigated and determined the cause. His answer was simple: continue to mark the rivets but added “KILROY WAS HERE’ in king-sized letters next to the chalk marks. He later added the historic sketch of a bald-headed, hefty proboscis, beady-eyed man of apparent ashen Smurf DNA peering over an imaginary fence.
With the war in full swing, ships were leaving the Fore River shipyard so quickly there was no time to paint over all the artwork. James Kilroy’s inspection gimmick was seen by thousands upon thousands of soldiers boarding troop ships. The slogan spread. Soon ‘KILROY WAS HERE!’ appeared in every corner of the world.
The imaginary Kilroy became a super hero to the G.I.s. He was already there wherever they went, welcoming the Greatest Generation fighting on distant shores with a simple quote, ‘KILROY WAS HERE!’ Kilroy was part of home, part of why we fight, part of American spirit.
In the most unlikely of places, Kilroy is rumored to be atop the Statue of Liberty, on the underside of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, atop Mount Everest, and yes, even scribbled in the dust on the moon. Perhaps the most profound recognition of Kilroy is his two hard-to-find locations on certain walls of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Honor Flight veterans always search for their buddy at their Memorial. Kilroy was always with them through thick and thin, wherever they fought, he was a true member of the Greatest Generation, but now, after all these years, he is home, indeed, ‘KILROY IS HERE!’
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.