PersonalityAmerican-born Axis Sally made propaganda broadcasts for Radio Berlin in Hitler’s Germany.
By Dale P. Harper
She was named Mildred Elizabeth Sisk when she was born in Portland, Maine, on November 29, 1900. Her parents, Vincent Sisk and Mae Hewitson Sisk, were divorced in 1907, and a few years later Mildred’s mother married a dentist, Dr. Robert Bruce Gillars. From that time on the child was known as Mildred Gillars.
The family moved around a great deal during her early years, but Mildred Gillars eventually graduated from high school in Conneaut, Ohio, in 1917. Then it was on to Ohio Wesleyan University in the small town of Delaware, where, hoping to pursue a stage career, she majored in dramatic arts. Gillars did well in speech, languages and dramatics but did not graduate because of her failure to meet all university requirements and standards.
According to her half sister, Gillars worked at a variety of jobs after leaving college–clerk, salesgirl, cashier and waitress–all to further her ambition to become an actress. In 1929 she went to Europe with her mother and spent six months studying in France before returning to the United States.
Eventually Gillars went to New York, where she worked in stock companies, musical comedies and vaudeville, but never made enough impact to gain any real recognition. In 1933 she returned to Europe and worked in France as a governess and salesgirl. She moved to Germany in 1935 and became an English instructor at the Berlitz School of Languages in Berlin. English teachers were paid less than Russian instructors–a possible reason for her decision to accept employment by Radio Berlin as an announcer and actress. This was a job much more to her liking, and she stayed with it until the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. Gillars’ propaganda program was known as “Home Sweet Home” and usually aired sometime between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. daily. Although she referred to herself as “Midge at the mike,” GIs dubbed her Axis Sally. Her broadcasts were heard all over Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and the United States from December 11, 1941, through May 6, 1945. Although most of her programs were broadcast from Berlin, some were aired from Chartres and Paris in France and from Hilversum in the Netherlands.
Once the war was over, her broadcasts would come back to haunt her. At a listening post operated by the Federal Communications Commission in Silver Hill, Md., all her programs had been monitored and recorded and would provide the prosecution with damaging evidence at her trial. The prosecution charged that her broadcasts were sugarcoated propaganda pills aimed at convincing U.S. soldiers that they were fighting on the wrong side.
Most GIs agreed that Gillars had a sultry, sexy voice that came over the radio loud and clear. Like her counterpart in the Pacific, Tokyo Rose, she liked to tease and taunt the soldiers about their wives and sweethearts back in the States. “Hi fellows,” she would say. “I’m afraid you’re yearning plenty for someone else. But I just wonder if she isn’t running around with the 4-Fs way back home.”
She would get the names, serial numbers and hometowns of captured and wounded GIs and voice concern about what would happen to them, in broadcasts that could be heard in the United States. “Well I suppose he’ll get along all right,” she would say. “The doctors don’t seem…I don’t know… only time will tell, you see.” At sign-off time she would tease her listeners some more, telling them, “I’ve got a heavy date waiting for me.”
Perhaps Sally’s most famous broadcast, and the one that would eventually get her convicted of treason, was a play titled Vision of Invasion that went out over the airwaves on May 11, 1944. It was beamed to American troops in England awaiting the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as well as to the home folks in America. Gillars played the role of an American mother who dreamed that her soldier son, a member of the invasion forces, died aboard a burning ship in the attempt to cross the English Channel. The play had a realistic quality to it, sound effects simulating the moans and cries of the wounded as they were raked with gunfire from the beaches. Over the battle action sound effects, an announcer’s voice intoned, “The D of D-Day stands for doom…disaster…death…defeat…Dunkerque or Dieppe.” Adelbert Houben, a high official of the German Broadcasting Service, would testify at Axis Sally’s trial that her broadcast was intended to prevent the invasion by frightening the Americans with grisly forecasts of staggering casualties.
After the defeat of Germany, Gillars was not immediately apprehended but blended into the throngs of displaced persons in occupied Germany seeking assistance from the Western Allies in obtaining food, shelter, medical treatment, location of relatives and friends, and possible employment. She spent three weeks in an American hospital in 1946, then was taken to an internment camp in Wansel, Germany. About Christmastime 1946, when she was granted amnesty and released, she obtained a pass to live in the French Zone of Berlin. Later, when she traveled to Frankfurt to get her pass renewed, she was arrested by the Army and kept there for more than a year. At the end of that detention she was flown to the United States and incarcerated in the Washington, D.C., District Jail on August 21, 1948. She was held there without bond. Later she was charged with 10 counts of treason (eventually reduced to eight to speed up the trial) by a federal grand jury. Her trial began on January 25, 1949, in the district court of the nation’s capital, with Judge Edward M. Curran presiding. The chief prosecutor was John M. Kelley, Jr., and Gillars’ attorney was James J. Laughlin.
Prosecutor Kelley pressed home some important points right from the start. First was the fact that after being hired by Radio Berlin she had signed an oath of allegiance to Hitler’s Germany. He also put witnesses on the stand who testified that Gillars had posed as a worker for the International Red Cross and persuaded captured American soldiers to record messages to their families and relatives in order to garner a large listening audience in the United States. By the time she finished weaving propaganda into the broadcasts, the POWs’ messages to their loved ones were not exactly messages of comfort.
Gilbert Lee Hansford of Cincinnati, a veteran of the 29th Infantry Division who lost a leg in the Normandy invasion, said Gillars visited him in a Paris hospital in August 1944. “She walked up with two German officers,” Hansford said, and she stated that she was working with the International Red Cross. She then told a group of wounded captives, “Hello boys, I’m here to make recordings so your folks will know you are still alive.”
Hansford said he and others talked into a microphone, recording messages for broadcast to their families at home. A courtroom playback of the messages as picked up by the American monitoring stations showed that Nazi propaganda had been inserted between the GIs’ messages. One insertion by Gillars said, “It’s a disgrace to the American public that they don’t wake to the fact of what Franklin D. Roosevelt is doing to the Gentiles of your country and my country.”
On February 10, 1949, an American paratrooper from New York, 36-year-old Michael Evanick, told the jury he was captured on D-Day, June 6, 1944, after parachuting behind German lines in Normandy. Pointing his finger, he identified Gillars as the woman who interviewed him in a German prisoner-of-war camp near Paris on July 15, 1944.
“I’d been listening to her broadcasts through Africa, Sicily, and Italy, and I told her I recognized her voice,” Evanick remembered. “She said, ‘I guess you know me as Axis Sally,’ and I told her we had a name for her.” The witness said Gillars gave him a drink of cognac and a cigarette and told him to make himself comfortable in a chair. After a few drinks, he said, she sent for a microphone and began the interview, asking him if he did not feel good to be out of the fighting.
“No ma’am,” Evanick said he replied. “I feel 100 percent better in the front lines where I get enough to eat.” At that, he said, Gillars angrily knocked the microphone over, but regained her composure and offered him another drink.
On February 19, Eugene McCarthy, a 25-year-old ex-GI from Chicago, was called to answer a single question. Defense attorney Laughlin asked him if Gillars had posed as a Red Cross worker when she came to make recorded interviews with American POWs at Stalag 2-B in Germany. The soldier stated that she did not. Then in a dramatic outburst, shouting over the defense counsel’s angry protest, the witness told the jury: “She threatened us as she left–that American citizen, that woman right there. She told us we were the most ungrateful Americans she had ever met and that we would regret this.”
Following McCarthy to the witness stand were veterans John T. Lynskey of Pittsburgh and Paul G. Kestel of Detroit. Both testified that when Gillars visited them in a Paris hospital she identified herself as a Red Cross worker.
Defense counsel Laughlin argued that treason must be something more than the spoken word: “Things have come to a pretty pass if a person cannot make an anti-
Semitic speech without being charged with treason. Being against President Roosevelt could not be treason. There are two schools of thought about President Roosevelt. One holds he was a patriot and martyr. The other holds that he was the greatest rogue in all history, the greatest fraud, and the greatest impostor that ever lived.”
Laughlin also tried to point out to the court the great influence that Max Otto Koischwitz had on Gillars. Koischwitz was a former professor at Hunter College in New York who became romantically involved with Gillars when she was one of his students. She had attended Hunter briefly while trying to pursue a stage career before finally abandoning the effort and going back to Europe in 1933. German-born Koischwitz eventually returned to Germany, renounced his U.S. citizenship, and became an official in the Nazi radio service in charge of propaganda broadcasts. He thus was Mildred’s superior.
In her trips to the witness stand, Gillars was usually tearful. She said Koischwitz’s Svengali-like influence over her had led her to make broadcasts for Hitler. She and the professor had lived together in Berlin, she said, and she burst into tears when informed that he had died.
In his final summation before the jury, prosecutor Kelley told them Gillars was a traitor who broadcast rotten propaganda for wartime Germany and got a sadistic joy out of it, especially those broadcasts in which she described in harrowing detail the agonies of wounded American soldiers before they died. “She sold out to them,” he said. “She thought she was on the winning side, and all she cared about was her own selfish fame.”
The trial ended on March 8, 1949, after six hectic weeks. The next day Judge Curran put the case in the hands of the jury of seven men and five women. After deliberating for 101Ž2 hours, they were unable to reach a verdict and were sequestered in a hotel for the night. They met again the next morning, and after 17 hours of further deliberation they acquitted her of seven of the eight counts pressed by the government in its original 10-count indictment. However, they found her guilty on count No. 10, involving the Nazi broadcast of the play Vision of Invasion.
On Saturday, March 26, Judge Curran pronounced sentence: 10 to 30 years in prison, a $10,000 fine, eligible for parole after 10 years. Mildred Gillars, alias Axis Sally, was then transported to the Federal Women’s Reformatory in Alderson, W.Va. When she became eligible for parole in 1959, she waived the right, apparently preferring prison to ridicule as a traitor on the outside. Two years later, when she applied for parole, it was granted. At 6:25 a.m. on June 10, 1961, she walked out the gate of Alderson prison a free woman.
Gillars taught for a while in a Roman Catholic school for girls in Columbus, Ohio, and then returned to her old college, Ohio Wesleyan. She received a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1973. Gillars died June 25, 1988, at the age of 87.