The Fore River Shipyard began operations in 1883 in Braintree, Massachusetts, moving to its current location on the Weymouth Fore River on Quincy Point, in 1901. In 1913, the yard was purchased by Bethlehem Steel, and operated under the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation.
Most ships at Fore River were built for the United States Navy, including early submarines built for Electric Boat, the Battleship USS Massachusetts, and the Navy’s first carrier, the USS Lexington. In the years before WW2, non-US Navy customers included the United States Merchant Marine, the Argentine Navy, the Royal Navy of Great Britain, and the Imperial Japanese Navy.
The Navy Act of 1938 mandated a 20% increase in American Naval strength. Much of that increase came through Fore River. The Shipyard employed 17,000 the day that Imperial Japan invaded the American Pacific anchorage at Pearl Harbor. That number increased to 32,000 by 1943, with a payroll equivalent to $9.69 Billion, in today’s dollars.
Necessity became the mother of invention, and the needs of war led to prodigious increases in speed. No sooner was USS Massachusetts launched, than the keel of USS Vincennes began to be laid. By the end of the war, Fore River had completed ninety-two vessels of eleven different classes.
Builders at the yard were paid by the number of rivets installed. Riveters would mark the end of their shift with a chalk mark, but dishonest co-workers could erase their marks, marking a new spot a few places back on the same seam.
Shipyard inspector James Kilroy ended the practice, writing “Kilroy was Here”, next to each chalk mark.
With hulls leaving the yard so fast there was no time to paint the interiors, Kilroy’s name achieved mythic proportions. The man literally seemed to be everywhere, his name written in every cramped and sealed space in the United States Navy.
For the troops inside of those ships, Kilroy always seemed to have “been there”, first.
Kilroy was Here became a kind of protective talisman, and soldiers began to write it on newly captured areas and landings. He was the “Super GI”, showing up for every combat, training and occupation operation of the WW2 and Korean war era. The scribbled cartoon face was there before you arrived, and he was still there when you left.
Germans thought Kilroy was some kind of “super spook”, able to go anywhere he liked, with ease.
The challenge became, who could put the Kilroy graffiti in the most difficult and surprising place. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that Kilroy occupies the top of Mt. Everest. His likeness is scribbled in the dust of the moon. There’s one on the Statue of Liberty, and another on the underside of the Arc of Triumph, in Paris. There are two of them engraved in the granite of the WW2 Memorial, in Washington, DC.
Under Water Demolition teams, the guys who later became US Navy SEALs, swam ashore on Japanese-held Pacific islands, preparing the way for amphibious landings. More than once, UDT divers found that Kilroy had already been there, the silly cartoon nose scribbled on makeshift signs, and even enemy pillboxes.
When Truman, Stalin, and Churchill met at Potsdam, a VIP latrine was built for their exclusive use. Stalin was the first in, emerging from the outhouse and asking his aide, in Russian, “Who is Kilroy?”
A Brit will tell you that “Mr. Chad” came first, cartoonist George Chatterton’s response to war rationing. “Wot, no tea”?
The cartoon appeared in every theater of the war, but few knew the mythical Kilroy’s true identity.
In 1946, the Transit Company of America held a contest, asking the “real” Kilroy to come forward. Close to forty guys showed up to claim the prize, a real trolley car. Doubtless they all felt they had legitimate claims, but James Kilroy brought a few riveters and some shipyard officials along, to prove his authenticity. That was it.
That Christmas the Kilroy kids, all nine of them, got the coolest playhouse in all of Boston.
James Kilroy went on to serve as Boston City Council member and member of the Massachusetts house of Representatives before passing away on this day, November 24, 1962.
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