Kilroy was here is an American popular culture expression that became popular during World War II; it is typically seen in graffiti. Its origins are debated, but the phrase and the distinctive accompanying doodle — a bald-headed man (sometimes depicted as having a few hairs) with a prominent nose peeking over a wall with the fingers of each hand clutching the wall — became associated with GIs in the 1940s.
In the United Kingdom, the graffiti is known as “Mr Chad” or just “Chad”, and the Australian equivalent to the phrase is “Foo was here”. “Foo was here” might date from World War I, and the character of Chad may have derived from a British cartoonist in 1938, possibly pre-dating “Kilroy was here”.
Etymologist Dave Wilton says, “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.” “Foo was here” became popular amongst Australian schoolchildren of post-war generations. Other names for the character include Smoe, Clem, Flywheel, Private Snoops, Overby, The Jeep (as both characters had sizable noses), and Sapo. Author Charles Panati says that in the United States “the mischievous face and the phrase became a national joke…
The outrageousness of the graffiti was not so much what it said, but where it turned up.” The major Kilroy graffiti fad ended in the 1950’s, but today people all over the world still scribble the character and “Kilroy was here” in schools, trains, and other public areas.
It is believed that James J. Kilroy was the origin of the expression, as he used the phrase when checking ships at the Fore River Shipyard.
The phrase may have originated through United States servicemen, who would draw the doodle and the text “Kilroy was here” on the walls and other places they were stationed, encamped, or visited. An ad in Life magazine noted that WWII-era servicemen were fond of claiming that “whatever beach-head they stormed, they always found notices chalked up ahead of them, that ‘Kilroy was here'”.
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable notes that it was particularly associated with the Air Transport Command, at least when observed in the United Kingdom. At some point, the graffito (Chad) and slogan (Kilroy was here) must have merged.
Many sources claim origins as early as 1939. An early example of the phrase being used may date from 1937, before World War II. A US History Channel video broadcast in 2007, “Fort Knox: Secrets Revealed”, includes a shot of a chalked “KILROY WAS HERE” dated 1937-05-13. Fort Knox’s vault was loaded in 1937 and inaccessible until the 1970’s, when an audit was carried out and the footage was shot. However, historian Paul Urbahns who was involved in the production of the program says that the footage was a reconstruction.
According to one story, it as reported that German intelligence found the phrase on captured American equipment. This began leading Adolf Hitler to believe that Kilroy could be the name or code name 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 VIPs’ bathroom, prompting him to ask his aides who Kilroy was.
War photographer Robert Capa noted a use of the phrase at Bastogne in December 1944: “On the black, charred walls of an abandoned barn, scrawled in white chalk, was the legend of McAuliffe’s GI’s: “KILROY WAS STUCK HERE.”
Have a nice day! Kilroy 🙂