The origins of ‘Kilroy was here’

By Martin Gleeson


The Gaelic form of the mane Kilroy is Mac Giolla Rua, which means son the red-haired servant.

Variants of the name include, McElroy, Gilroy, and McGilroy. All Irish people are proud of Rory McIIory, the professional golfer from Holywood, Co. Down who was the year-end World Number 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2012 and 2014.


A few years ago, while I was doing my post-retirement world trip, my wife and I spent a week in the Vietnam city of Ho Chi Minh, formerly called Saigon.

On our second or third day there, we visited the War Remnants Museum which attracts 500,000 visitors every year.

Outside the building, we saw a US Air Force F-5A fighter, a Huey helicopter, and M48 Patton tank and samples of the huge array of military equipment abandoned by the Americans at the end of the Vietnam war.

Inside, the exhibitions showed the horrors of the Asian conflict. More terrors were displayed upstairs, where we noticed that the visitors had become more thoughtful and silent.

After a few hours, I made my way to the men’s toilets. As I was exiting, something caught my eye: a piece of graffiti in one of the cubicles. It was a rough cartoon-style drawing of a bald man with two big eyes and a long nose sticking out over the wall.The figure was accompanied by the sign: KILROY WAS HERE.

I smiled to see it in such a solemn location. This Kilroy has been everywhere. Like many people, I began to wonder about Mister Kilroy and where he had come from.


During the Second World War in the nineteen forties, many warships were being built in the Fore River Shipyard, in Quincy, Massachusetts. Many of the ship workers were paid by the number of rivets they inserted in the vessels.

People of Irish descent form the largest single ethnic group in the State of Massachusetts. James J. Kilroy, a man who must have had Irish blood in his veins, was an inspector whose job was to count and record the number of rivets on the ship’s hulls. Using a stick of waxy yellow chalk, he noted and ticked off every block of rivets he had counted.

One day, however, he was told that some workers had been secretly rubbing out these marks so that he had been counting some blocks of rivets twice, resulting in double pay for the men.

This upset Kilroy. To prevent this happening again, wherever he inspected a block of rivets, Kilroy drew a figure of a bald man with big eyes and a long nose looking over a wall with the fingers of his two hands just visible. This was to let the riveters know that he was watching them. As a result, the riveters stopped erasing Kilroy’s chalk marks.

As the was progressed and the need for warships grew more acute, many of the ships were launched before they were painted. Thus, Kilroy’s drawings were seen by thousands of sailors in the US Navy.

All during the war, Kilroy’s drawings and words were scrawled on helmets, bombs, supply boxes, aircraft wings and walls wherever the American troops fought.


American servicemen took the phrase ‘Kilroy was here’ to their hearts. This saying and its humorous drawing appeared everywhere the American troops fought in Europe and in the South Pacific.

To many US soldiers, this piece of graffiti was more than a joke. It brought a smile to their faces and it offered hope and assurance that the United States of America was winning the war.


At one point during WWII, German intelligence agents found the slogan on some captured American equipment. They concluded that Kilroy was the code name of a high-level Allied spy!

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin had exclusive use of the VIP bathroom. When Stalin saw the Kilroy sign on the wall, he asked his aides to find out who Kilroy was!


American soldiers in WWII had sentimental attachments to the name they saw wherever they fought. The WWII Memorial in Washington DC is of national significance and is dedicated to those who served in the US armed services. This monument is treated with great reverence by all visitors. But hidden in a corner is a small Kilroy figure etched in granite and this pays service to the lighter side of the fighting men.