Sometime during World War II, graffiti of a man with a long nose peering over a wall and the message “Kilroy was here” began popping up in the most unlikely and often dangerous places. It was boldly hand drawn on rocks and trees on the battlefields of Europe and the South Pacific, painted on the side of warplanes, on U.S. troopships, Army jeeps and bombed out buildings. The little Kilroy man became the logo of American GIs, and a way to taunt the enemy that there was no safe place to hide. The more remote and inaccessible the location, the more likely a GI would paint the graffiti to announce they had been there first.
Amateur and experienced American adventurers soon adopted Kilroy to mark their own conquests. It’s said that Kilroy can be found atop Mt. Everest, in dark caves, deep canyons, and mountain cliffs, and even scratched into the dust on the moon.
Most people, however, have no idea who Kilroy was or how the tradition began. In 1946, a radio program called “Speak to America” even sponsored a nationwide contest to find the real Kilroy, if he existed at all. Of the dozens of men who made that claim, the most credible was one James J. Kilroy who was a shipyard inspector in Quincy, Massachusetts. Kilroy’s job at the Fore River Shipyard was to count the number of rivets drilled into place on the ships. This count was used to tally the wages of riveters who were paid piecework by the rivet. As Kilroy completed his inspection, he would place a waxy chalk mark next to each block of rivets counted. As it turned out, some riveters took to erasing his chalk mark in hard to reach crawl spaces, so they could get paid twice for the same work. Kilroy tried to foil this deception by drawing a little man peering out at them and the words “Kilroy was here” next to his checkmark. Later, on boarding the troopships built at Fore River, servicemen would come across Kilroy’s mysterious “signature” in nearly inaccessible places. Adopting Kilroy as the GI’s “everyman,” they drew the logo everywhere as their own way of announcing that they had passed this way.