The Bugler

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Kilroy was Here!

Remember Kilroy - the bald fellow peering over a fence that hid everything but his nose and sometimes his fingers gripping the top of the fence? Kilroy was everywhere in the 1940s and 1950s. The doodle and the text were popular graffiti and were spread around the world with the travels of U.S. servicemen.

The REAL Kilroy?
In 1946 the American Transit Association, through its radio program,"Speak to America," sponsored a nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy. It offered a prize of a real trolley car to the person who could prove himself to be the genuine article. About 40 men stepped forward to make that claim, but only James J. Kilroy from Halifax, Massachusetts had evidence of his identity.

Kilroy was a 46-year old welding inspector during World War II. He worked as a checker at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Quincy. Riveters were on piecework and got paid by the rivet. Kilroy's job was to go around and check on the number of rivets completed. He would count a block of rivets then put a check mark in semi-waxed lumber chalk, so the rivets wouldn't be counted twice. When Kilroy went off duty, the riveters would erase the mark. Later on, an off-shift inspector would come through and count the rivets a second time, resulting in double pay for the riveters.

One day Kilroy's boss called him into his office. The foreman was upset about all the wages being paid to riveters and asked him to investigate. It was then that he realized what had been going on. The tight spaces he had to crawl in to check the rivets didn't lend themselves to lugging around a paint can and brush, so Kilroy decided to stickwith the waxy chalk. Moreover, he made his marks as the ships were being built. Later, the phrase would be foundchalked in places that no graffiti artist could have reached - inside sealed hull spaces, for instance. Thus, the mythical significance of the phrase grew: if Kilroy could leave his mark there, who knew where else it was possible for him to go? He continued to put his checkmark on each job he inspected but added KILROY WAS HERE in king-sized letters next to the check, and eventually added the sketch of the guy with the long nose peering over the fence that became part of the Kilroy message and legend. Once he did that, the riveters stopped trying to wipe away his marks. Ordinarily the rivets and chalk marks would have been covered up with paint; but with war on, ships were leaving the Quincy Yard so fast there wasn't time to paint them.

[Well, that's one story. Another version states that Kilroy added the phrase due to frustrations with his bosses who didn't believe that he had checked the inner bottoms and tanks of ships being built. One day, as he emerged from the hatch of a tank he had just inspected, he scrawled the phrase in yellow crayon where it could easily be seen. How the caricature of Kilroy joined up with the phrase remains a mystery.]

Whatever the truth, Kilroy's inspection "trademark" was seen by thousands of servicemen who boarded the troopships built in the yard and spread it all over Europe and the South Pacific. Before the war's end, "Kilroy" had been here, there, and everywhere. Not only was he "there" first, he was watching over you wherever you happened to be!

To the troops outbound in those ships, however, he was a complete mystery; all they knew for sure was that some guy named Kilroy had already been there. As a joke, U.S. servicemen began placing the graffiti wherever they landed, claiming it was already there when they arrived.

As the war went on, the legend grew. Underwater demolition teams routinely sneaked ashore on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific to map the terrain for the coming invasions by U.S. troops and were, presumably, the first GI's there. On one occasion, they reported seeing enemy troops painting over the Kilroy logo. In 1945, an outhouse was built for the exclusive use of Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill at the Potsdam conference. The story is told that the first person inside was Stalin, who emerged and asked his aide in Russian, "Who is Kilroy?"

To help prove his authenticity in 1946, James Kilroy brought along officials from the shipyard and some of the riveters. He won the 50-foot trolley car, which he attached to his home as extra living quarters for six of his nine children, solving what had become an acute housing crisis for the Kilroy family.

Kilroy was there!
Kilroy, the character, became the super U.S. GI who had always already been wherever GIs went. It became a challenge to place the logo in the unlikeliest places imaginable and is said to be atop the peak of Mount Everest, on the torch of the Statue of Liberty, on the Marco Polo Bridge in China, in Polynesian huts, on a high girder on the NY-NJ George Washington Bridge, in World War II pillboxes scattered around Germany, around the sewers of Paris, on the underside of the Arc De Triomphe in Paris, scrawled in the dust on the moon, and, in tribute to its origin, engraved in the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

Though the Kilroy fad ended in the 1950s, he lives on in popular culture - in literature in Isaac Asimov's "The Message," Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet; and in movies, television, video games, and music. You see, that's the legend: you just never know when or where Kilroy will be found! Kilroy was - and still is - here!

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