Friday, May 13, 2005

Kilroy Was Here

The google-eyed, long-nosed cartoon figure of "Kilroy was here" fame -- first scrawled on a ship in Quincy's Fore River Shipyard during World War II's production push -- has gone on to attain cultural icon status.
The 1940s doodle that became ubiquitous on battleships, above urinals, even reportedly scrawled on the bellies of pregnant women, is today seen on television, in print, and, yes, on tanks in Iraq. Quincy, where it all started, wants the world to acknowledge and preserve Kilroy's claim to fame. Local historians are launching a campaign for a ''Kilroy Was Here" postage stamp, and are petitioning the Navy to name a ship the USS Kilroy Was Here. The city will celebrate the graffiti's local origins on Sunday, announcing winners of a Kilroy essay contest, hosting a scavenger hunt for the phrase aboard the USS Salem, and holding a ''pin the nose on Kilroy" game for youngsters, during a daylong event at the shipyard. History-minded residents are eager to record and preserve Kilroy's ''local boy" status before aging shipyard workers and veterans -- who can share their anecdotes about encountering Kilroy in latrines in France, or on the beaches of Okinawa -- pass away. Kilroy was born soon after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. That's when ship inspector James J. Kilroy began working in the Fore River Shipyard. He took to scribbling ''Kilroy Was Here" in crayon or paint next to the rivets he inspected, to prevent workers from cheating and taking credit twice for the same work. Because of the rush to get ships into service, many of the more than 60 carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and landing craft made in Quincy during the war left the shipyard without a coat of paint belowdecks -- so the ''Kilroy was here" scribble was still visible on their raw interiors. ''You'd see 'Kilroy' written everywhere, and being young, I just said to myself, 'I wonder who Kilroy is' . . . We'd just say to each other, 'Oh, Kilroy was here,' " said Quincy resident Mildred Vento, 80, who dropped out of high school and went to work in the shipyard when she was 17. ''We just knew that Kilroy was very important." As sailors across the world began to see the words ''Kilroy Was Here" peppered across the walls of their ships, the words took on the power of a talisman, protecting them from torpedoes and typhoons. Initially, the graffiti ''was proof that someone had checked the construction of the ship, and they got it right -- you can bet your life on this ship," said Ron Adams, a teacher at Broad Meadows Middle School, who has been conducting oral interviews with veterans about ''Kilroy" for years.
During the pivotal invasion of Okinawa, in spring of 1945, Navy ships surrounded the Japanese island, bombarding it all night while a small force of men went ahead to secure the main beach. In the morning, those aboard scanned the shore with binoculars to see how effective the attack had been. They got their answer when they saw ''Kilroy Was Here" spelled out in plywood on the beach, Herbert Holmes, stationed aboard the Quincy-built USS Baltimore that day, said in an interview before his death. As he announced to his shipmates what he saw through the binoculars, a roar went up from the crew. It wasn't long before Kilroy began to make his mark well beyond the beachheads. Leonard Morris, a Quincy resident who began fighting in North Africa in 1942, and was at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, said he saw ''Kilroy" everywhere, but had no idea who the guy was at the time. ''Every city and town that we went into, somebody painted ''Kilroy Was Here," said Morris, who first saw the graffiti somewhere in southern Germany. ''Walls, buildings, latrines -- you name it -- Kilroy was there. If they ever caught him, he would have been court-martialed." The legends around the myth grew as the sightings multiplied. One story had Adolf Hitler obsessed with Kilroy, driven mad by this elusive and unstoppable Allied super-spy. Joseph Stalin is said to have left the bathroom at the 1954 Potsdam Conference and asked his bodyguard who Kilroy was. And some say it has been traced in the dust of the moon, on France's Arc de Triomphe, and on the Statue of Liberty's torch. While most of the lore is anecdotal, the range of Kilroy stories is a testament to the power the phrase had during the war, and continues to have today. 'Kilroy Was Here' means something, said Michael Condon, director of the USS Salem, a Quincy-built battleship that is now a museum in the former Fore River shipyard property. ''It means that the US forces are there to protect you or save you." No one knew the origin of the phrase until after the war. In 1946, the American Transit Authority held a contest to discover its roots. James J. Kilroy, then a Halifax resident, won the contest by sharing the story of his authorship. A massive trolley car was delivered to his house as a prize, and his story became history. But in many ways, it was the mystery of the phrase that led to its power. ''It became a rallying cry in World War II and in Korea, and to this day, it still exists as an important icon for the military in the United States," said Dave Drummond, a former Quincy resident who wrote a history of the shipyard, and who will be back on Sunday to share his knowledge with visitors at the celebration. Condon said the goal of the ''Kilroy Was Here" campaign is to preserve the phrase and to lead people back to Quincy and the role the city played during the war. At the shipyard's peak, 58,000 people worked there, and a small city grew up around it. It was where Mildred Vento and her older sister, Dolly, would sing at night while their brothers fought in the war. ''I appreciate all that went on in the shipyard. There were many people that were killed or maimed permanently, from accidents in the yard," Vento said. ''I call them the unsung heroes."

blog counter