Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
I’m often fascinated by how disparate ideas will come together in the public consciousness to form into something that’s seemingly always been the way it is and is seemingly known by everyone. Ask anyone, for example, who Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant was, and they’ll tell you he was a hunchback named Igor. Never mind that neither the original novel nor any of the classic films portray such a character; by 1974 everyone was so sure Frankenstein had had a hunchbacked assistant named Igor that Mel Brooks was making jokes about the pronunciation of his name.
Somewhere in the same category lives the pre-internet meme KILROY WAS HERE, which during World War II and even into the present day could be seen graffitied on countless surfaces all over the world alongside a distinctive cartoon of a bald, giant-nosed man looking over a wall. Who was Kilroy? Why had he been pretty much everywhere? What had happened to his hair? Had he considered rhinoplasty? Nobody knew. What they did know was that, when you found yourself in an ungraffitied place, you immediately climbed or crawled to the hardest-to-reach corner, drew the face, and wrote the three words. It was just what you did.
Some eight decades later, with the benefit of hindsight, we’ve got at least a pretty good guess as to how the whole thing started—that is to say, who Kilroy was, and why people were supposed to care about where he had been. In 1946, the year after the war ended, the American Transit Authority (because… sure) organized a contest, promising a free streetcar (because… sure) to anyone who could prove he (or, I suppose, she) was the honest-to-God original Kilroy. One James J. Kilroy eventually came forward to claim the prize, which he evidently added onto his house in order to make room for his nine children—suggesting that Kilroy was not only a globally popular meme but also the most Irish person of all time.Kilroy graffiti was something of a liturgy: a ritual that reshaped hearts and minds into parallel forces striving toward the same goal.
The truth, as James told it, was perhaps a bit more mundane than some of the more romanticized rumors (which perhaps lends it credence). Kilroy had been a welding inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, in the early days of the war, and worked under a supervisor who frequently demanded that he inspect welds he had already inspected. He got so sick of it that he took to grabbing a piece of chalk and writing KILROY WAS HERE in enormous block letters on every bulkhead he had visited. Under normal circumstances, the chalk would have eventually been painted over, but in the midst of the biggest war the world had ever seen, ships were getting pushed out into service as quickly as possible, leaving at least some of the markings uncovered. Apparently the ambiguity of the slogan and the strangeness of its placement were enough to capture the imaginations of the soldiers and sailors who discovered them, and the phrase took off from there.
That accounts for the words, then. But where did the face come from?
Surprisingly—maybe?—the face came from all the way across the pond, with its origin in the United Kingdom. Though no one is entirely sure what the original basis for it was, it’s been suggested that the face was based on a diagram of an electrical circuit, and may have been designed by cartoonist George Edward Chatterton. As a graffito (yes, that’s the singular of graffiti, you learned something today, you’re welcome), it was already popular with the royal military, who had taken to inking it anywhere and everywhere alongside the catchphrase “Wot, no sugar?” or “Wot, no eggs?” or something similar, in order to poke fun at wartime rationing.
When exactly the phrase KILROY WAS HERE met up with Mr. Chad (as the British had called him) is lost to history, but by the end of the war the two had become inseparable. Everywhere the troops went, they saw the familiar face and slogan; if they didn’t see it, they painted it themselves. It wasn’t infrequent for troops to land on new islands in the Pacific, or reach new towns in Europe, only to see the mark already there—often with Japanese or German privates from the occupying army dispatched to paint over it. Allegedly—this story is probably apocryphal, but it’s too good not to share—Josef Stalin once emerged from a private restroom accessible only to him, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt, angrily demanding to know who Kilroy was. The mark has been reported to be scrawled on top of the Statue of Liberty, on the Arc de Triomphe, at the summit of Mount Everest, and on the surface of the moon (though obviously some of that happened after the war ended). It’s even immortalized in stone at the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.
In a post-internet world, the virality of a silly phrase and an even sillier cartoon may seem unremarkable, but as with all memes, the unremarkableness of the whole thing was a significant chunk of the appeal. The essential joke wasn’t in the image or the text; the essential joke was the mystery and ubiquity of the whole thing. Who was Kilroy, and why had he been everywhere?
The more-serious subtext of it all, of course, was that Kilroy was the essentialized American private—and that no matter where American troops went, their territory had already been marked. Some eight decades later, World War II feels like America’s career-defining Super Bowl victory, but in the fog of war, victory almost never feels assured. To the average soldier, sailor, or airman, the KILROY mark was a reminder that he was surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and could run the race before him. In that sense, it was something of a liturgy: a ritual that reshaped hearts and minds into parallel forces striving toward the same goal.
For those looking to extract a Big Lesson from this, KILROY is a reminder that the small things—the jokes, the art, the moments—are what bind a culture together. The seemingly meaningless things are often the most meaningful, in that they orient the participants toward the big, important meanings.
KILROY may or may not be real—but he had, indeed, been HERE. The path may have led to hell and back, but it had been run, and marked out, for you.
All that was left was for you to do was to follow in his footsteps.