Every two Wednesdays at Fashions! Quirks! Panic!Luke T. Harrington examines one of the random obsessions that have gripped the public mind in the recent past and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
I’I am often fascinated by how disparate ideas will come together in the public consciousness to form something that has seemingly always been this way and is seemingly known by all. Ask anyone, for example, who Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant was and they will tell you that he was a hunchback named Igor. It doesn’t matter that neither the original novel nor any of the classic films portray such a character; in 1974 everyone was so sure that Frankenstein had a hunchbacked assistant named Igor Mel Brooks joked about the pronunciation of his name.
Somewhere in the same category lives the pre-internet meme KILROY WAS HERE, that during WWII and even today graffiti could be seen on countless surfaces around the world alongside a distinctive cartoon of a bald man with a giant nose looking over a wall. Who was Kilroy? Why had he been practically everywhere? What had happened to his hair? Had he considered rhinoplasty? Nobody knew. What them Done I knew that, when you were in a scratch-free spot, you’d immediately climb or crawl to the hardest-to-reach corner, draw the face, and write the three words. It was just what you Done.
Some eighty years later, in hindsight, we have at least a good idea of how this whole thing got started, namely who Kilroy was and why people were supposed to care where he’d been. . In 1946, the year after the end of the war, the American Transit Authority (because… of course) organized a contest, promising a free streetcar (because… sure) to anyone who could prove that he (or, I suppose, she) was the original honest-to-God Kilroy. One James J. Kilroy eventually came forward to collect the prize, which he evidently added to his home to make room for his nine children, suggesting that Kilroy was not only a worldwide popular meme, but also the most Irish person of all time.
Kilroy’s graffiti was a kind of liturgy: a ritual that reshaped hearts and minds into parallel forces fighting for the same goal.
The truth, as James told it, was perhaps a little more mundane than some of the more romantic rumors (which perhaps gives it credence). Kilroy had been a weld inspector at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts in the early days of the war, and worked under a supervisor who often asked him to inspect welds that he had already inspected. He got so tired that he took it grabbing a piece of chalk and writing KILROY WAS HERE in large letters on every bulkhead he visited. Under normal circumstances, the plaster would eventually be repainted, but in the midst of the greatest war the world had ever seen, ships were being commissioned as quickly as possible, leaving at least some of the marks uncovered. Apparently the ambiguity of the slogan and the strangeness of its placement were enough to capture the imagination of the soldiers and sailors who discovered them, and the phrase went from there.
That explains the words, then. But where does the face come from?
Surprisingly – maybe? – the face was from all along the pond, with its origin in the UK. While no one is entirely sure what the original basis was, it has been suggested that the face was based on a schematic of an electrical circuit and may have been designed by cartoonist George Edward Chatterton. As graffiti (yes, that’s the singular of graffiti, did you learn something today, please), it was already popular with the royal military, who had taken to inking it everywhere and everywhere alongside the catchphrase “Wot, no sugar? or « Wot, no eggs? » or something similar, to make fun of wartime rationing.
When exactly the phrase KILROY WAS HERE met Mr. Chad (as the British had called him) is lost to history, but by the end of the war the two had become inseparable. Wherever the troops went, they saw the familiar face and slogan; if they no look at it, they painted it themselves. It was not uncommon for troops to land on new islands in the Pacific, or reach new cities in Europe, just for you see the sign already there– often with Japanese or German soldiers from the occupying army sent to repaint it. Supposedly—this story is probably apocryphal, but it’s too good not to share—Josef Stalin once emerged from a private bathroom accessible only to him, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, angrily demanding to know who Kilroy was. The mark has been reported to be scribbled atop the Statue of Liberty, the Arc de Triomphe, atop Mount Everest, and on the surface of the moon (although of course some of that happened after the war ended). It’s even immortalized in stone at the WWII memorial in Washington, DC
IIn the post-internet world, the virality of a silly phrase and an even sillier cartoon may seem insignificant, but as with all memes, the irrelevance of the whole thing was a significant part of the appeal. The essential joke was not in the image or 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 stripped-down American soldier and that no matter where American troops went, their territory had already been marked. Some eight decades later, World War II looks like America’s career-defining Super Bowl victory, but in the fog of war, victory almost never seems assured. For the average soldier, sailor, or airman, the KILROY brand was reminiscent of that he was surrounded by a great swarm of witnesses and could run in front of him. In that sense, it was a kind of liturgy: a ritual that reshaped hearts and minds into parallel forces striving for the same goal.
For those looking to take a big lesson out of this, KILROY is a reminder that the little things – the jokes, the art, the moments –they are what unites a culture. Seemingly meaningless things are often the most significant, as they orient participants to the big and important meanings.
KILROY may or may not be real, but he was indeed HERE. The path may have led to hell and back, but it was walked and marked for you.
All that was left for you to do was follow in his footsteps.