Three Characters in Search of a Story

Three Characters in Search of a Story Hidden Language

Scott drills down into origin stories that don’t wash.

SCOTT: The newspapers don’t say if James and Francis ever crossed paths. They might’ve. James was what they called a rate setter at the time. He’d been a businessman, a city councilor, a state rep. Francis wasn’t old enough to have such experience, but his service ribbon might tell us otherwise. They had lived in the Boston area, just a hop, skip, and a jump from each other; later, James, the rate setter, moved from the Roxbury area of Boston downstate to Halifax. Francis, the sergeant, came back home after the war to Everett, just north of Boston. So, they might’ve met; regardless, there were some newspaper accounts at the time — this  toward the end of 1946 — those stories made some connections between the two men. If only in name.


SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.

JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. In this episode, Scott chalks up some time to consider some origin stories that don’t wash.


SCOTT: It was the early 1930s when James entered politics. He was in his early thirties. He ran for State congress and won, serving a two-year term representing Roxbury’s District 11 as a democrat. There, he chaired his district headquarters for what they called the Emergency Relief Fund for the city of Boston. It was a few years into the Great Depression. And if you wanted to make a donation to the relief fund, you could go down to the Putnam School on Seaver Street and see James and his team. In 1935, he won a seat on the Boston City Council, serving the 11th Ward. 

James had a fairly quiet stint in his role in city council. He held benefits and banquets and meetings there in West Roxbury. James was in transportation, owned a trucking company at one point, and as city councilor, he proposed the removal of a stairway that led up to an El Train Station at the Egleston stop. The stairway had been a safety hazard, blocking the view and free flow of motorists. 

It was a quiet time for James. The country was in between wars, of course. He hadn’t served overseas — he was too young to fight in the first and too old for the second. And, according to his family, he never even left the safety of his home state of Massachusetts.

Just a couple of days before his country entered the Second World War, James started busting his hump in the Boston suburb of Quincy, there at the Beth Steel shipyard, what was known as Fore River. His job was to set rates on rivets drilled into various areas of a ship. Some areas on board were more difficult for riveters to get to than others, so James was responsible for inspecting and setting the value of rivets drilled based on the level of difficulty. The harder the rivets were to drill, the higher rate. He would make a checkmark next to the rivet to show that he had counted it and then add up all the value that a particular riveter would get. Some of those guys disagreed with the value James had given them and they would erase the checkmark next to their work without him seeing it. So, those rivets would end up getting counted twice and riveters would end up getting paid twice for the same work. Once James got wind of that, he wasn’t about to get into trouble because of others working the system. He had been a state rep and a city councilor. He knew how to work the system, too.

And he did something about it. And a few days later, what he did would push him into the war — without even knowing it.

A photo of James J. Kilroy when he Boston city councilor.
Councilor James J. Kilroy / Boston Globe, 1936


A few years later, in 1945, just two months after that war, a 21-year-old Army Air Force sergeant was granted his discharge papers at a field separation base in Tucson. That’s Davis-Monthan. He was a good-looking kid, light brown curly hair, blue eyes, tall, slender. He’d be married within a year, start having a kid of his own. He wore five battle stars on his service ribbon and a Distinguished Unit citation. But there at the base, on that day Sergeant Francis was to be discharged from his service to his country, some lingering controversy finally caught up with him, controversy that had followed him around the world for the past couple of years as he toured North Africa, and the Mediterranean, and Austria, and Romania, and Central Europe. The public relations officer on base stopped him and asked him about it. Francis grinned and told the PRO what happened.

FRANCIS: My friend Jimmy Maloney might have had something to do with it. It all started at Boca Raton Army airfield in Florida. It was my second week in a radar technicians class and I caught the flu and was on my back for a week. Jimmy — he and another pal started to miss me, I guess, and wrote a nice note on the bulletin board there in the barracks, announcing that I’d be back the next week. So when I did get back to school, there it was. The nice note, kinda welcoming me back. [Pauses and chuckles.] That Maloney sure started something.

A photo of Sergeant Francis J. Kilroy.
Sgt. Francis J. Kilroy / Boston Globe, 1945

SCOTT: A year later, in November 1946, James, the rate setter, was back home in Halifax thinking about the same thing. But he knew that he had started something. And he wrote about it and sent it to a radio station, WCOP, out of Boston:

JAMES: On December 5, 1941, I started to work for Bethlehem Steel Company, Fore River Ship Yard, Quincy, Massachusetts, as a ratesetter. I started my new job with enthusiasm, carefully surveying every innerbottom and tank issuing a contract. I was thoroughly upset to find that practically every test leader I met wanted me to go down and look over his job with him, and when I explained to him that I had seen the job and could not spare time to crawl through one of these tanks again with him, he would accuse me of not having looked the job over. I was getting sick of being accused of not looking the jobs over and one day, as I came back through the manhole of a tank I had just surveyed, I angrily marked the tank top, where the testers could see it, “KILROY WAS HERE.” The following day a test gang leader approached me with a grin on his face and said, “I see you looked my job over.” 

SCOTT: James K. Kilroy claims he started that whole “Kilroy was here” thing.

Whoever he was, wherever he went, Kilroy scribbled his name on pillboxes and latrines throughout Europe and the Pacific theatre, even back at home, in his barracks, waiting to be deployed. 

“Kilroy was here!”

Back on Main Street, it was the scourge of Halloween pranks that stateside business owners would find marked in soap on their store windows. Petty thieves would break into shoe stores and pinch the till, leaving a note inside the register with three single words: 

“Kilroy was here!” 

Marketing gurus would soon use the popularity of the phrase in newspaper and magazine ads, schilling soda fountain straws at Kloss Supply Company down in Allentown, good food and fine drinks at the Hart’s Club 41 in Oshkosh, and nylons over at Kay’s Hosiery up in Binghamton.

Ludlow Magic Shop used Kilroy’s image in a 1946 ad. / Dayton Daily News

Radio tried to rein Kilroy in, satirizing frustration he caused for Americans who simply wanted the joke to stop:

CLIP from “Voice of the Army” episode.

SCOTT: Songwriters and cowboy crooners paid homage to him. 

CLIP from “Kilroy Was Here,” performed by Ear Tanner and His Back Room Boys.”

SCOTT: The movies even got in the game, with one, of course called Kilroy Was Here, starring Jackie Cooper. He plays John J. Kilroy, a G.I. who is cursed with sharing the same name as that other G.I., the very fleeting graffitist who leaves his name all over the world. 

CLIP from the film Kilroy was Here.  

SCOTT: You might’ve seen the words “Kilroy was here” joined by a familiar face peeking over a wall: he’s usually bald, maybe a strand of hair curling from the top of his head, flanked by hands holding the top of the wall. Just snooping, taunting us, still hiding, still keeping his identity unknown. There is no way to tell when and where the very first graffiti of “Kilroy was Here” appeared. And there’s no sense trying to figure it out, because Kilroy is meant to be elusive, meant to be fleeting, always on the lam. But that doesn’t mean some men haven’t tried to take credit for it. There’s the rate setter, who claims that once the ships he tagged with his own name started to leave for war that week, they inspired its personnel to disembark around the world and lay claim that Kilroy had been there. And there and there and there. 

But then there’s the sergeant. Francis. Francis J. Kilroy.

FRANCIS: Everybody and his brother was writing “Kilroy” by then. One day, I came across a chalked message that read: “Veni, vidi, vici — Kilroy came, saw, and conquered.” No matter where I went, I always found the darned thing had been written before Kilroy himself had arrived.

SCOTT: Two competing origin stories. But only one would endure.

There’s this organization called the American Transit Association, and they represented the concerns of public transport across the U.S. And in July 1946, it sponsored a dramatized news radio show called “Spotlight on America,” produced through the Mutual Broadcasting System. In late October 1946, producers of the show put out a call to its listeners: 

ANNOUNCER: A nationwide search is now being conducted by the Mutual Broadcasting System for the first, the original, “The Kilroy” of “Kilroy was Here” fame. Send us your story — whether you’re the real Kilroy or you know who is. For the best answer from a listener in the opinion of Spotlight on America judges will be awarded a real, life-sized trolley car, complete with seats and straps, bells and whistles. No more than 100 words, please. Contest closes November 9 at midnight. The decision of the judges is final.  

SCOTT: James heard that show, and he of course had a story to tell. We don’t know if Francis heard the broadcast — they got thousands of letters, according to news reports. His could’ve been one of them. But the ratesetter, the politician, the businessman James J. Kilroy: his story is the one that counted. . . . 

JAMES: . . . On December 5, 1941, I started to work for Bethlehem Steel Company, Fore River Ship Yard, Quincy, Massachusetts, as a ratesetter. . . . 

SCOTT: Blowing through the 100-word limit by 69 words, his story won over all the others. . . . 

JAMES: . . . angrily marked the tank top, where the testers could see it, “KILROY WAS HERE.” . . .

SCOTT: . . . Except that it didn’t actually win. On the other side of the country, Mrs. Harold Coffman had her own story to tell. 

MRS. HAROLD COFFMAN: How well we remember the first time we saw Kilroy. It was just after the Dunkerque retreat that an Irish-American in the uniform of the RAF crashed near our home. We hid him in a safe place and, after his injuries healed, we smuggled him out of the country. Before we left he told us to keep on fighting; that liberation would soon come. We were of the underground and for each small victory we sent the message to all freedom-loving people to let them know that “Kilroy was here.”

Mrs. Harold Coffman poses with her new streetcar, surrounded by members of the press.
Mrs. Harold Coffman poses with her new streetcar, which she was
to donate to a veteran and his nine children. / Pacific Electric Railway
Historical Society, Ralph Cantos Collection

SCOTT: A member of the French resistance, she now lived in West Los Angeles. And she claims that after that pilot named Kilroy escaped occupied territory, she started writing “Kilroy was Here” on signs and left them hanging and laying around, just to taunt the Nazis. American troops would of course encounter those signs as they moved through Europe.

That story told by Mrs. Harold Coffman was the one judges chose as the winner. But they were smitten by another. And even though James’s account would’ve been disqualified because of its length, judges declared those two storytellers co-winners. And the American Transit Association arranged for both to receive these massive streetcars. James J. Kilroy received his from Everett, Massachusetts — that’s the hometown of Sergeant Francis — and James parked it behind his summer cottage down in Halifax, used it as a playroom for his nine children. Years later, he chopped it up, sold the scraps for what he could, and recycled the rest into playground equipment for the kids. Mrs. Harold Coffman received hers from Los Angeles and had it moved up to Barstow, converted it to a livable space, and donated it to a veteran. He had nine children, too. 

This is a story about identity. Kilroy transformed from a mystery of one guy, of one soldier, to representing soldiers in all services, all around the world, Even back home in the States. Kilroy became the Everyman. The Everysoldier. 

It’s a story about how we identify others. At the time, if you were married, you were talked about in the papers behind your husband’s name. Mrs. Harold Coffman. Mrs. Francis J. Kilroy. Mrs. James J. Kilroy. 

Mr. James J. Kilroy. Or Representative Kilroy, or Councilor Kilroy — many titles to choose from throughout his life. He got to choose.

And others chose him. Others chose his story to tell. This is the story we know. This is the story that many others cite as the origin of “Kilroy was here” — James J.’s story. Not the story of Francis J. of Everett. Not the story of Mrs. Harold Coffman of West Los Angeles. 

So, this is not a story about graffiti, or a running joke, or flights of fancy, or an analog meme that we’ve shanghaied for 75 years. This is a story about stories. About the stories that are told, the stories that get to be told, of the people who get to tell the stories, the stories that are believed and endure, and the ones that have their moment, only a moment – hidden behind a husband’s name, hidden behind a battle star, hidden just beyond the paths that never cross.


SCOTT: You’ve been listening to Hidden Language. Thanks to Kevin Jefferson, Andy Lowe, and Cecille Deason, and Jay Varner for lending their voices to these stories. And a big shout out to my colleague Dr. Elizabeth Pass, who’s been researching Kilroy with me for a number of years now. Some of the character dialogue was based on a number of new accounts from November 1946. Music was provided by Dee Yan-Key, Till Paradiso, and Edoy. Our theme music by Jay Varner. For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see fit.

And have yourself a happy new year.



Music was provided by the following artists through

“longed-for destination,” by Dee Ya-Kee, CC BY-NC 4.0

“karoshi,” by Dee Ya-Kee, CC BY-NC 4.0

“Stardust,” by U.S. Army Blues, Public Domain Mark 1.0

“Grief,” by Dee Ya-Kee, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Morning Coffee,” by Dee Ya-Kee, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Funky,” by Dee Ya-Kee, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“Ici,” Eric Van der Westen, CC BY-NC 4.0

“Identity,” by Edoy, CC BY-SA 4.0

Clips provided by the following:

“Kilroy Was Here.” The Voice of the Army, episode 303. [Audio.] May 27, 1946.

“Kilroy Was Here.” Tine Ear Tanner and His Back Room Boys. [Audio.] 1946.

Kilroy Was Here. Dir. Phil Karlson. Warner Bros. [Film.] 1947.

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