Military memes have become popular in the community using social media platforms as art galleries to display them.  Lot of things get memed, so it only makes sense that military-themed memes were going to be a major part of the art form at some point. All of these memes however owe their existence to the granddaddy of all military memes and probably the most well-known one as well,  Kilroy.

For our older audiences out there, a meme is a joke that spreads across the internet, whether in image, video, or text form. These memes often express the pain, frustration, and contradictions of military life, and do so mostly through humor.

Kilroy Was Here graffiti, the very first military meme
Kilroy Was Here graffiti, the very first military meme (Wikimedia Commons).

It’s quite hard to nail what a meme is because, at its core, it’s really an idea or an expression. For example, a meme can be used to mock someone in a comedic fashion, or it can even result from some fad. More often than not, these memes make use of popular culture – editing videos and photographs from viral internet videos, films, celebrity photos, and even music.

But where did this whole concept of a meme come from? Would you believe me if I said the military actually made the very first meme?

Meet Kilroy the Original Military Meme

Picture this. It’s World War II, and you’re on the frontlines in German-occupied France, and of course, you would expect that the atmosphere would be dreary, serious, and above all, a little bit nerve-wracking with all the noise. You are in the dark cellar of a house only recently occupied by the Germans and light a match to see and notice graffiti scribbled on the wall in chalk.

“Kilroy was here,” followed by a crude drawing of somebody peeping across a wall.

And you know who Kilroy is because you have seen him before, everywhere. From the latrines, to the inside of ammo crates in deep in the hulls of ships, and heck, even the Berlin Wall when you finally got to visit it after the war was over.  Kilroy went everywhere the U.S. military went in WWII as the biggest inside joke in a military of more than 12 million men and women in uniform.

Kilroy, the military meme, started as a simple graffiti that turned into a running joke across allied forces. The inside joke was that wherever there was an allied base, Kilroy would be there. It was a form of comedic respite the allies were doing to lift their spirits up in times of war and anxiety. Further down along the line, it became such a huge running joke that Kilroy would now be speaking different languages across the world.

It was a joke that transcended borders, an idea, and a phrase that spread like wildfire across the globe. GIs would find themselves meeting Kilroy at the unlikeliest of places, a drawing of a strange bald man whose identity was both mysterious and comforting, providing a laugh in places where laughs were in pretty short supply.  Kilroy popping up in places you’d never expect was part of the joke too, and GIs and Sailors looked for opportunities to spread his fame in the most unusual places they could access.  It was also used as a way to mark the passage of U.S. forces constantly on the march, lest the next unit passing through think they were the first to enter a town or city somewhere in Europe.

Even the Germans thought they knew who Kilroy was and assumed the name was the code word for a spy that seemed to be everywhere.  It is said that Joseph Stalin encountered Kilroy in a bathroom stall during the Potsdam Conference and asked who he was.


Who the heck is Kilroy?

Nobody knows who or what started the Kilroy phenomenon for sure, but what’s for sure is that Kilroy was the identity of soldiers away from home, the lighter side of their collective personalities. Hundreds have claimed to be Kilroy but the most likely origin is an American shipyard inspector named James J. Kilroy, owner of the very first military meme in the U.S.

It was theorized that Kilroy would sign his last name on ship hulls that he would be inspecting during his time at the Fore River Shipyard in Massachusetts. Riveters were paid by the rivet and Kilroy’s job was to count them and mark them on a pay sheet. Inspectors’ marks made with chalk were erased by the riveter hoping he might double-dip his pay by having another inspector count them as well, so instead of chalk, Kilroy would use crayon. These ships would put to sea with “Kilroy Was Here” inside sealed bulkheads that would be later found by repair workers when the ship’s hull was torn open by torpedos and shell fire, and the mystery of how that graffiti ended up there was born.

Kilroy Is Here military meme on a Douglas C-47D Skytrain
Kilroy Is Here military meme on a Douglas C-47D Skytrain. Eric FriedebachCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that the Kilroy inscription was put in places where it was hard to reach so that it would be difficult to erase and this resulted in GIs and Sailors trying to find the most hard to reach places to also spread Kilroy’s name and fame.

Kilroy and Mr. Chad Military Meme Schematic
Kilroy and Mr. Chad Military Meme Schematic from an RLC Circuit (Wikimedia Commons)

From then on, soldiers and military personnel created the first meme by drawing a large bald man peeping over a wall. This drawing might come from the RLC electrical circuit drawing, which resembles a man with a long nose looking over a wall.

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The British Had Their Own Kilroy, “Mr. Chad”

Mr. Chad had many names. Mr. Chad was famous in the United Kingdom in the RAF, hence the usage of “Wot.” He was also known as Private Snoops in the army, possibly because the drawing seemed to be snooping around. In the Royal Navy, he was known as “The Watcher.” He was known as “The Goon” in many other places because he looked like Alice the Goon from Popeye. This meme would usually have the text “Wot, no -?” followed by a thing or commodity that the military needed but was out of. Say the military was running short on sugar. As a form of protest, individuals would draw Mr. Chad with the text “Wot, no sugar?”

Another military meme was Smoe, otherwise known as the European Kilroy. In Africa, Smoe was known as Clem. So it became a running joke that if an American soldier were to scribble Kilroy somewhere and a British soldier was to see it, the phrase “And so was Smoe” was added to “Kilroy was here,” signaling some form of competition between American, British, and European soldiers and military personnel who were all on the march to Berlin and wanted to be first.

Many other phrases were added to the original “Kilroy was here,” often appearing in different languages and in different contexts.

The Lasting Impact of Kilroy

Way before the internet, the very first military meme was born. Kilroy inadvertently made the use of memes widespread in popular culture today, where memes are created every day through internet users. Much like how it spread an idea, humor, or a concept in the days of World War II, today’s memes stay true to what a meme is supposed to be – sometimes funny, sometimes a protest, often a way to make somebody laugh throughout the daily life. But what none of these military memes can say, a simple drawing done in crayon can said definitively.

Kilroy was here, and he was there first.

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