“Kilroy was here” is an expression that became popular during World War II, typically showing up as graffiti. Kilroy has been seen all over the world and went viral long before the Internet was around, finding his way through all the theaters of war with American troops. Its origin is debated, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with GIs in the 1940s.
The doodle was a bald-headed man, with a prominent nose, peeking over a wall with his fingers clutching the wall. He was initially known in the UK as “Mr Chad” and would appear with the slogan “Wot, no sugar” or a similar phrase bemoaning shortages and rationing. He often appeared with a single curling hair that resembled a question mark and with crosses in his eyes. Chad might have first been drawn by British cartoonist George Edward Chatterton in 1938. Chatterton was nicknamed “Chat,” which may then have become “Chad.”
A delightful example of how the expression was used comes in a story from England in 1945, reprinted in the Virginia newspaper The Bee, on Christmas Eve that year: “Men at a military camp near here scribbled over the walls of the canteen: ‘Wot! No beer!’ ‘Wot! No fags!’ ‘Wot! No eggs!’. The commanding officer threatened 28 days detention to anyone caught, but when he returned to his office after parade, he found on his blotting pad: ‘Wot! Only 28 days!'”
According to Dave Wilton, “Some time during the war, Chad and Kilroy met, and in the spirit of Allied unity merged, with the British drawing appearing over the American phrase.”
According to one story, German intelligence found the phrase on captured American equipment. This led Adolf Hitler to believe that Kilroy could be the name or codename of a high-level Allied spy. At the time of the Potsdam Conference in 1945, it was rumored that Stalin found “Kilroy was here” written in the VIP bathroom, prompting him to ask his aides who Kilroy was.
There are, naturally, many theories as to the origin of “Kilroy was here.” One theory identifies James J. Kilroy (1902–1962) as the man behind the signature, an American shipyard inspector. The New York Times indicated J.J. Kilroy as the origin in 1946, based on the results of a contest conducted by the American Transit Association to establish the origin of the phenomenon. The article noted that Kilroy had marked the ships as they were being built as a way to be sure that he had inspected a compartment, and the phrase would be found chalked in places that nobody could have reached for graffiti, such as inside sealed hull spaces.
The Lowell Sun reported in November 1945 that Sgt. Francis J. Kilroy, Jr. from Everett, Massachusetts wrote “Kilroy will be here next week” on a barracks bulletin board at a Boca Raton, Florida airbase while ill with flu, and the phrase was picked up by other airmen and quickly spread abroad.
A spokesman for the Royal Air Force Museum London suggested in 1977 that Chad was probably an adaptation of the Greek letter Omega, used as the symbol for electrical resistance; his creator was probably an electrician in a ground crew. One correspondent said that a man named Dickie Lyle was at RAF Yatesbury in 1941, and he drew a version of the diagram as a face when the instructor had left the room and wrote “Wot, no leave?” beneath it.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 1946 that Chad appeared on a wall in the Houses of Parliament after the 1945 Labour election victory, with “Wot, no Tories?” Trains in Austria in 1946 featured Mr. Chad along with the phrase “Wot—no Fuehrer?”
Kilroy has been seen in a number of television series and films including Hogan’s Heroes. In September 1946, Enterprise Records released a song by NBC singer Paul Page titled “Kilroy Was Here.”
The website kilroywashere.org is devoted to the legends of Kilroy. It says, “Kilroy became the US super-GI who always got there first — wherever GI’s went. It became a challenge to place the logo in the most unlikely places. It was said to be atop Mt. Everest, the Statue of Liberty, the underside of the Arch de Triumphe, and scrawled in the dust on the moon.”
The phrase obviously doesn’t have a long history, but many hundreds of thousands of people have gotten a chuckle out of it. I’m one of them.