Monday, May 2, 2005

Kilroy is still here.

James L. Kilroy, that is. The ship inspector credited with creating one of America’s most potent military mottos remains dear to the nation’s heart.

On the job around 1942, he wrote just three words in presumed anonymity on the hull of a Liberty ship: “Kilroy was here.”

Over time, the phrase came to mean there was no place so remote that the U.S. military could not reach it.

There’s a campaign to put his catch phrase on a postage stamp. Others hope to persuade the U.S. Navy to christen a “USS Kilroy.” There are Kilroy hats, bumper stickers and shirts. There’s a photo competition, an essay contest, a fan club and a swell anniversary celebration planned for mid-May.

To the delight of those who discover it, the Kilroy message has been engraved upon the new World War II Memorial on the Mall.

“‘Kilroy was here’ meant a lot to those in World War II and the Korean War. But let me tell you, it lives on through today’s military,” said Michael Condon of the United States Naval Shipbuilding Museum in Massachusetts — once the Quincy Four River Shipyard and home base of the original Mr. Kilroy, who died in 1962.

“The phrase has popped up in the caves of Afghanistan, and in Iraq. It’s still a symbol of just how great the American spirit can be. It still means something to people,” Mr. Condon said.

Mr. Kilroy was hired to inspect rivet holes in the bellies of troop ships before their launch. Other inspectors used simple chalk marks, but Mr. Kilroy hastily scrawled “Kilroy was here” in yellow crayon.

The idea that some mysterious wag “had been there first” resonated with troops who sailed aboard the ships. They soon began writing the same thing wherever they landed, commonly embellished with a bug-eyed cartoon.

Once Americans occupied German territory toward the war’s end, the ubiquitous phrase was said to have convinced Adolf Hitler himself that Kilroy was an American “super soldier,” and the German dictator ordered undercover agents to capture him.

“The motto traveled the globe and became a rallying cry and a powerful morale booster for Allied troops on land, air and sea,” Mr. Condon said.

Press accounts of the time reported that more than one woman went into the hospital delivery room with a coy “Kilroy was here” painted on her abdomen. The sentiment has since appeared atop Mount Everest and in the dust of the moon, according to historian Charles Panati, who has written a half dozen books on the origins of popular sayings.

Kilroy remains a global kind of guy.

According to Mr. Condon, the shipbuilding museum will celebrate both phrase and man on May 15 aboard the USS Salem, a preserved Heavy Cruiser. The museum is urging the public to download a Kilroy flyer from a new Web site,, then take photos of themselves in odd locations. There’s a Kilroy essay contest as well.

The museum is also coordinating efforts to persuade the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Kilroy stamp while a postcard-writing campaign directed to Navy Secretary Gordon England is already under way, lobbying for a Kilroy namesake ship.

The Australia-based Kilroy Was Here fan club,, has assembled scores of Kilroy stories and sightings from spots around the world, plus Kilroy-themed wearables and a message board.

“The first time I saw the name Kilroy was on the bulkhead of a Liberty ship in the aft head, in Nov., 1942, when I was a member of a U.S. Navy gun crew,” wrote one fan. “As I was a dopey 19-year-old, I searched the crew list for a Kilroy. Imagine that. No Kilroy. Sixty-three years later, I still think of my invisible friend.”

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