Kilroy was here

Engraving of Kilroy on the WWII Memorial in Washington DC — LR_PTY/Creative Commons

There are some folks from the past that I hear or read about on a regular basis. In prior columns, I have mentioned several of them. June bug is one; Cornbread is another. The Jitterbug, Black Buster, Fats and Curly are others. In talking with some of my associates, another name came to mind. For the most part, my column attracts readers that are seniors, as a result, some readers may not have direct knowledge of today’s subject. This was evident when I asked a Tribune editor about his knowledge of a character named Kilroy and he responded saying, “I only know that Kilroy was here.” Some of my generation has difficulty relating to Kilroy. If they do, they lack knowledge about his history, in particular his origin. Today, I will introduce to some and re-introduce to others Kilroy, and why he was here, back in the day.

I was made aware of Kilroy as a little boy. I had no idea who he was but I was aware that he existed from the many carvings on trees and telephone poles as well as writings on walls and in the streets. I did not know if Kilroy was a good guy or a bad guy. I certainly did not know what he had done to receive so much attention and wondered if he had left something behind so that people knew that he had been there. Some of you may have heard “Kilroy was here” from the 1947 comedy movie, with this infamous saying, starring Jackie Cooper, that focused on a service man who needed one-half credit to enroll in college. Perhaps, you were like a friend who told me that she knew about Kilroy from alcohol stirrers on her parent’s basement bar. One of the stirrers contained an image of a man and the other of a pregnant woman. She assumed that Kilroy had impregnated the female which gave meaning to the words on the stirrer, “Kilroy was here.” But, you probably lack any understanding of Kilroy’s relationship to World War II. So, let me help you with this trip back in the day to understand why “Kilroy was here.”

In an article titled, “The Story Behind the Phrase Kilroy Was Here” by Bob Strauss, he points out that during and after World War II, Kilroy was a doodle of a big-nosed man, peering over a wall with the inscription, “Kilroy was here.” His popularity caused these words to be found almost everywhere; it was found in bathrooms, on bridges, in school cafeterias and even on the shells of Air Force missiles. Strauss indicated that in a 1948 Bugs Bunny cartoon, Bugs Bunny believed he had arrived on the moon and found, “Kilroy was here” etched on a rock. It is regarded as graffiti and can be traced back to “Foo was here,” which was popular among Australian servicemen during World War I with a cartoon only, no words. Similarly, “Mr. Chad” appeared in England but may have been a Greek saying; both with the connotation that someone is watching. At some point before World War II, it appears that Foo, Chad, and Kilroy merged and became the classic, “Kilroy is here.” Its derivation is a matter of dispute. According to Strauss, an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Braintree, MA, James J. Kilroy, supposedly wrote “Kilroy was here” on various parts of ships as they were being built. He also identifies Francis J. Kilroy, Jr. a soldier in Florida who was sick with the flu but wrote “Kilroy will be here next week” on the walls of his barracks. Some footage on the History Channel raises other possibilities of the origin of this saying as it was on walls at Fort Knox as early as 1937. But the four years of World War II, where soldiers found Kilroy on a wall or fence placed on the beaches before they arrived became an emblem of pride suggesting that no place and no country were beyond the reach of American’s power. Strauss also points out in his article that German intelligence found the phrase on captured American equipment and Josef Stalin found “Kilroy was here” written on the VIP bathroom at the Potsdam Conference in Germany. Yes, “Kilroy was here,” and he was everywhere, back in the day.

Charles Panti, a former college professor, industrial physicist, author and science editor of Newsweek, indicates that, “Kilroy was here,” was not so much what is said but where it turned up. He also indicates that it is not known if there was an actual person named Kilroy who inspired these words but there have been several claims over the years. The Oxford English Dictionary says that Kilroy was the name of a mythical person. There are many theories as to the origin of the phrase. An American poet and professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, made an interesting statement, “God is like Kilroy. He, too, sees it all.” It has appeared in many television series and films and in computer and video games. But clearly, its actual origin is unknown.

So where is Kilroy today? I do not know. But it has been many years since I have seen the words, “Kilroy is here,” scrawled on anything. Knowing today’s culture as I do, it would not surprise me that someone, after reading this column, will start a fad with the words, “Kilroy was never here,” just to counteract the memories that some of us had about the whereabouts of Kilroy from, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19146

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