'Kilroy' was inspiration in WWII

ALBANY -- During World War II one person participated in every battle, occupation operation and even training. He was in every branch of service and always seemed to be the first one to any fight.

His name was Kilroy and he was there.

I first heard of Kilroy while interviewing World War II veterans for The Herald's series that spotlights some members of the "greatest generation."

His name would be dropped into conversations while I interviewed the vets over coffee, or referred to with an air of mystery and a small inward smile. I, being younger than my more seasoned subjects, often wondered who this mysterious G.I. was the veterans were somehow all acquainted with.

Kilroy, it turns out, was not a real person at all. Kilroy was a doodle of a bald-headed, long-nosed spectator who was often seen spying over walls that became popular during World War II and continued on throughout the Korean War.

Ellison Rabun, 91, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a radio and communications officer during World War II and said the first time he saw Kilroy was in the Philippines.

"I saw his nose sticking up over a wall," Rabun said. "I knew then that somebody had been there before me."

Rabun said he then began seeing Kilroy almost everywhere he went, always spying over his token wall.

"I never caught up with him, of course," the veteran laughed.

Rabun said other servicemen would scribble the familiar Kilroy on anything they could find including guns, trees, supplies and mines.

"Anywhere that they could find a spot to put him, there he was," he said.

John Hollowell was a sailor during World War II and said Kilroy seemed to be a man on a mission.

"He sure did get around," Hollowell laughed.

Kilroy's identity remained a mystery to most servicemen during the war.

"Every time you would go into a train station or bathroom, he (Kilroy) was there," said W.E. Sams, 88.

Sams served in the United States Marine Corps as a sergeant during World War II, where he commanded a howitzer.

"I never knew who Kilroy was," he said. "I sure did see a lot of him though."

W. Ridley Monk, 88, said while he was in the U.S. Navy during the war, he often heard other servicemen discussing Kilroy.

"It was pretty much an infantry thing," he said. "It became a sense of pride. People would draw Kilroy after scouting an area before anyone else, and then another person would come along and know that someone had been there first."

Kilroy was to many servicemen overseas a symbol of every G.I. who was fighting and a comfort that they were not alone.

"I had never really been away from home that much," said Rabun of serving overseas during the war. "It was familiar, and it did make it easier to know someone else was there."

The origin of Kilroy is just as elusive as the familiar doodle itself.

One of the most accepted theories of origin is a New York Times claim that James J. Kilroy, an American shipyard inspector, was the man who began the Kilroy movement.

During World War II, Kilroy worked at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass., where he started using the phrase "Kilroy was here" to keep builders honest about the amount of work they completed.

At the time, the common practice was to pay shipbuilders by the amount of rivets they put in. Riveters would often use chalk marks to designate where they had left off on a line and where the next shift's riveter would begin. Soon riveters began to realize they could get paid more if they erased the previous riveter's chalk line and moved it back along the seam. Riveters began arriving to work before Kilroy could inspect the chalk lines and take credit for someone else's work.

Kilroy decided that an additional check would stop this practice and began writing "Kilroy was here" at chalk lines during inspections. The riveters were kept honest because they were unable to duplicate Kilroy's mark exactly.

During World War II, ships were in such demand that they would often be sent out before being painted. Servicemen would then board the ships and see the strange markings of Kilroy throughout the ship.

In December 1946, when Kilroy was rapidly becoming a pop-culture icon, the American Transit Association held a contest offering a prize of a trolley car to the person who could prove himself to be the "real" Kilroy.

The New York Times reported that almost 40 men stepped forward to make the claim, but Kilroy brought along officials and riveters from the Quincy shipyard to testify on his behalf.

The American Transit Association was impressed by Kilroy's story and witness statments and awarded the inspector the trolley car, which he gave to his nine children as a Christmas gift.

Other myths of Kilroy abound, one being that Adolf Hitler, upon hearing the mention of Kilroy's mark found in secure Nazi installations, became suspicious that Kilroy was a spy capable of unimaginable stealth.

Whatever Kilroy's origin or his meaning, one thing that's for certain is that he remained a constant companion and friendly face to many servicemen during the war who were far from home and fighting for freedom.

As a tribute to his unusual contribution to war efforts, Kilroy's familiar face and tagline is engraved on the National World War II memorial in Washington D.C. as a solid confirmation that like so many of the brave veterans The Herald staff has interviewed, he too was there.