Kilroy really wasn’t there at all

iconic graffiti actually represents a real person from the Second World War

He’s been following me all my life.

Correction: I’VE been following HIM all my life.

He’s beaten me to every significant place I’ve visited: national monuments, public washrooms, bulletin boards — even pages of books.

It’s Kilroy I’m talking about.

You know the guy?  Leaves a cartoon drawing of himself — just two eyes and a big nose peeping over what looks like the top of a fence.  Under that he prints his characteristic one-line calling card — KILROY WAS HERE.

The Kilroy trademark began appearing ‘way back during the Second World War when American GIs took up the practice of scrawling Kilroy’s inquisitive schnozz and tag line at battle sites in Germany, Italy — even on palm trees of engagement zones in the Pacific.

It wasn’t long before civilians got into the act.

The slogan began showing up all around the world. You could find KILROY WAS HERE graffiti on the Sphinx, the Arc de Triomphe, the Statue of Liberty — even atop Mount Everest.

Legend has it that an Apollo astronaut even scrawled it in dust on the moon.

It’s a fascinating illustration of how even a trivial, meaningless bit of pop culture fluff can, for no discernible reason, go viral and spread around the globe.

Except for one thing: KILROY WAS HERE is not a meaningless phrase. There really was a Kilroy and he really did come up with that famous slogan.

His full name was James Kilroy and he was an inspector at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, MA. One of his jobs was to keep track of the number of rivets shipyard workers installed every day. He would tally up the number and put a check mark beside the last rivet so that they wouldn’t be counted twice. The workers — who got paid by the number of rivets they placed — quickly wised up and started erasing the check marks, fooling the next inspector into re-counting the rivets and paying them extra.

When James Kilroy wised up to the scam, he added his cartoon and the line KILROY WAS HERE to the check mark. End of accounting problem — and beginning of a world-wide phenomenon.

The story goes that when Joseph Stalin emerged from the VIP washroom at the Big Three conference at Potsdam in 1946 the first question he had for his aide was “Who is this Kilroy?”

Reminds me of the Stan and Si.

‘Stan and Si’ is a sandwich.  When I was younger and lived in Thunder Bay, Ontario I frequently went into restaurants and ordered a Stan and Si — as did many others.  It wasn’t always printed on the menu, but the waitress inevitably knew what you meant — basically a hot roast beef sandwich with some extra trimmings.

A Thunder Bay newspaper editor explained to me that Stan and Si were two Thunder Bay railroad workers who liked to shoot a game of pool on their lunch hour.  They didn’t have time to sit down so they’d order their favourite sandwich and eat it while they played. Pretty soon their lunch became known as ‘the Stan and Si’. It’s still available at select Thunder Bay establishments as far as I know.

Next time I’m in The Lakehead I plan to find out for sure.  I’ll hit the first restaurant I see and order a Stan and Si with a side of fries.

If they know what it is and bring me one, I’ll scrawl KILROY WAS HERE on the menu.


— Arthur Black lives on Salt Spring Island.



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