Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (née Sisk; November 29, 1900 – June 25, 1988)[1] was an American broadcaster employed by Nazi Germany to disseminate Axis propaganda during World War II. Following her capture in post-war Berlin, Gillars became the first woman to be convicted of treason against the United States.[2] In March 1949, she was sentenced to ten to thirty years' imprisonment.[2] Gillars was paroled in 1961. Along with Rita Zucca she was nicknamed "Axis Sally".

Mildred Gillars
Gillars's prison photo, 1949
Born
Mildred Elizabeth Sisk

(1900-11-29)November 29, 1900
DiedJune 25, 1988(1988-06-25) (aged 87)
Resting placeSaint Joseph Cemetery, Columbus
Other names
OccupationRadio broadcaster
Years active1940–1945
Known forPresenting Nazi propaganda on German State Radio, directed to U.S. troops and audience, during World War II
Criminal statusParoled (1961)
Conviction(s)Treason
Criminal penalty10 to 30 years imprisonment

Early life

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Born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk in Portland, Maine, she took the surname Gillars in 1911 after her mother remarried.[3][4] Her family resided in Bellevue, Ohio where her father was a dentist. At 16, she moved to Conneaut, Ohio with her family.[4] In 1918, she enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University to study dramatic arts, but left without graduating.[3]

Gillars then moved to Greenwich Village, New York City, where she worked in various low-skilled jobs to finance drama lessons. She toured with stock companies and appeared in vaudeville but she was unable to establish a theatrical career.[5] Gillars also worked as an artist's model for sculptor Mario Korbel but was unable to find regular employment. In 1929, she moved to France and lived in Paris for six months.[6]

In 1933, Gillars left the United States again, residing first in Algiers where she found work as a dressmaker's assistant.[7][8] In 1934, she moved to Dresden, Germany to study music and was later employed as a teacher of English at the Berlitz School of Languages in Berlin.

Work as a Nazi propagandist

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In 1940, Gillars obtained work as an announcer with the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), German State Radio.

By 1941, the U.S. State Department was advising American nationals to leave Germany and German-controlled territories. However, Gillars chose to remain because her fiancé, Paul Karlson who was a naturalized German citizen, said he would never marry her if she returned to the United States. Shortly afterwards, Karlson was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was killed in action.[9]

Gillars' initial broadcasts were largely apolitical. Eventually, she started a relationship with Max Otto Koischwitz,[10] the German-American program director in the USA Zone at the RRG. In 1942, Koischwitz cast Gillars in a new show called Home Sweet Home and included her in his political broadcasts. Gillars soon acquired several names amongst her GI audience, including the "Bitch of Berlin",[2] "Berlin Babe", "Olga", and "Sally", but the most common was "Axis Sally". This name probably came when asked on air to describe herself, Gillars said she was "the Irish type… a real Sally."[9] Gillars expressed anti-Semitic sentiments during her broadcasts. During one broadcast, she said "I say damn Roosevelt and Churchill, and all of their Jews who have made this war possible."[11]

In 1943, an Italian-American woman, Rita Zucca, also began broadcasting to American forces from Rome using the name "Sally". The two often were confused with each other and even thought by many to be one and the same, though Gillars was annoyed another woman was broadcasting under her name.[9]

Gillars' main programs from Berlin were:

  • Home Sweet Home Hour, from December 24, 1942 until 1945,[12] a regular propaganda program aimed at making U.S. forces in Europe feel homesick. A running theme of these broadcasts was the infidelity of soldiers' wives and sweethearts while the listeners were stationed in Europe and North Africa. She questioned whether the women would remain faithful, "especially if you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece".[13] Opening with the sound of a train whistle, Home Sweet Home attempted to exploit the fears of American soldiers about the home front. The broadcasts were designed to make soldiers feel doubt about their mission, their leaders, and their prospects after the war.[14]
  • Midge at the Mike,[2] broadcast from March to late fall 1943,[12] in which she played American songs interspersed with defeatist propaganda, anti-Semitic rhetoric, and attacks on Franklin D. Roosevelt.[8]
  • GI's Letter-box and Medical Reports (1944),[12] directed at the U.S. home audience in which Gillars used information on wounded and captured U.S. airmen to cause fear and worry in their families. After D-Day (June 6, 1944), Gillars and Koischwitz worked for a time from Chartres and Paris for this purpose, visiting hospitals and interviewing POWs,[15] falsely claiming to be a representative of the International Red Cross.[16] In 1943, they had toured POW camps in Germany, interviewing captured Americans and recording their messages for their families in the U.S. The interviews were then edited for broadcast as though the speakers were well-treated or sympathetic to the Nazi cause.

Gillars made her most famous broadcast on May 11, 1944, a few weeks prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, in a radio play written by Koischwitz called Vision of Invasion. She played Evelyn, an Ohio mother, who dreams that her son had died a horrific death on a ship in the English Channel during an attempted invasion of Occupied Europe.[5]

Koischwitz died in August 1944 and Gillars' broadcasts became lackluster and repetitive without his creative energy. She remained in Berlin until the end of the war. Her last broadcast was on May 6, 1945, just two days before the surrender of Germany.[17]

Arrest, trial, and imprisonment

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The U.S. attorney general dispatched prosecutor Victor C. Woerheide to Berlin to find and arrest Gillars. He and Counterintelligence Corps special agent Hans Winzen only had one solid lead: Raymond Kurtz, a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans, recalled that a woman who had visited his prison camp seeking interviews was the broadcaster who called herself "Midge at the Mic", and had used the alias Barbara Mome. Woerheide organized wanted posters with Gillars' picture to put up in Berlin, and the breakthrough came when he was informed that a woman calling herself "Barbara Mome" was selling her furniture at second-hand markets around the city. A shop owner whose stock contained a table belonging to Gillars was detained and under "intensive interrogation" revealed Gillars' address.[18] When she was arrested on March 15, 1946, Gillars only asked to take with her a picture of Koischwitz.[9]

She was then held by the Counterintelligence Corps at Camp King, Oberursel, along with collaborators Herbert John Burgman and Donald S. Day, until she was conditionally released from custody on December 24, 1946; however, she declined to leave military detention.[19] She was abruptly re-arrested on January 22, 1947 after being offered conditional release by the United States[20] at the request of the Justice Department and was eventually flown to the United States on August 21, 1948 to await trial on charges of aiding the German war effort.[21]

Gillars was indicted on September 10, 1948 and charged with ten counts of treason, but only eight were used at her trial which began on January 25, 1949. The prosecution relied on the large number of her programs recorded by the Federal Communications Commission, stationed in Silver Hill, Maryland, to show her participation in propaganda activities directed at the United States. It was also shown that Gillars had taken an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler.[22] The defense stated that her broadcasts stated unpopular opinions but did not amount to treasonable conduct. They also argued that she was under the hypnotic influence of Koischwitz and therefore not fully responsible for her actions until after his death.[23] On March 10, 1949, the jury convicted Gillars on just one count of treason, that of making the Vision of Invasion broadcast. She was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine ($128,000 today).[24][25][26][27][28] The judge spared Gillars from a harsher sentence since she had not participated in high-level Nazi propaganda policy conferences as was the case with Douglas Chandler and Robert Henry Best. In 1950, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the conviction.[29]

Gillars served her sentence at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. She became eligible for parole in 1959 but did not apply until 1961.[30] She was released on June 10, 1961.[31][32]

Later life

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Having converted to Catholicism while in prison, Gillars went to live at the Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio and taught German, French, and music at St. Joseph Academy, Columbus.[33]

In 1973, she returned to Ohio Wesleyan University to complete her degree, a Bachelor of Arts in speech.[34]

Gillars died of colon cancer at Grant Medical Center in Columbus on June 25, 1988.[3][9]

Film

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Gillars' wartime broadcasts and trial are the subject of the 2021 legal drama American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally.[35]

See also

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References

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  1. ^ "Mildred Gillars | American traitor". Encyclopædia Britannica. Archived from the original on October 26, 2020. Retrieved October 20, 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d Ian, Crofton (2009). Traitors & Turncoats: Twenty Tales of Treason from Benedict Arnold to Ezra Pound. London: Quercus. pp. 131. ISBN 978-1-84866-011-3. OCLC 298185611.
  3. ^ a b c "Mildred Gillars, 87, of Nazi radio, Axis Sally to an allied audience", The New York Times, July 2, 1988.
  4. ^ a b Blundo, Joseph "Joe" (January 30, 2011), "Sally's axis of evil ended at convent in Columbus", Columbus Dispatch, archived from the original on January 21, 2013, retrieved February 17, 2011.
  5. ^ a b Taylor, Blaine (March 21, 2016). "Mildred Gillars (a.k.a. 'Axis Sally') in WWII". Military Heritage. Archived from the original on March 7, 2018. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  6. ^ Lucas, Richard (2013). Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany. Casemate Publishers. p. 42. ISBN 9781480406605. Archived from the original on July 23, 2020. Retrieved March 7, 2018.
  7. ^ Axis Sally (PDF), Washington, DC: Department of Justice, archived (PDF) from the original on August 30, 2010, retrieved September 15, 2010.
  8. ^ a b "Treason: Big Role". Time. February 7, 1949. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on January 31, 2011. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d e Lucas, Richard (November 23, 2009). "Axis Sally: The Americans Behind That Alluring Voice". HistoryNet. Archived from the original on June 4, 2016. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  10. ^ "TREASON: True to the Red, White & Blue". Time. March 7, 1949. Retrieved March 9, 2019.
  11. ^ "Mildred Gillars (a.k.a. 'Axis Sally') in WWII". Warfare History Network. June 5, 2021. Retrieved December 15, 2022.
  12. ^ a b c Axis Sally (part 15) (PDF), FoIA record, Washington, DC: Department of Justice, archived (PDF) from the original on August 30, 2010, retrieved September 15, 2010.
  13. ^ Andrews, Evan (August 29, 2018). "6 World War II Propaganda Broadcasters". History. Archived from the original on September 20, 2018. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  14. ^ Pfau, Ann Elizabeth (2010), Axis Sally, the Greatest Generation, and Generation Y, archived from the original on March 10, 2022, retrieved October 30, 2017.
  15. ^ Axis Sally (part 3) (PDF), FoIA record, Washington, DC: Department of Justice, archived (PDF) from the original on August 30, 2010, retrieved September 15, 2010.
  16. ^ Richard Lucas, Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany (2001).
  17. ^ Hoare, James (May 6, 2014). "On This Day – Final Broadcast of Mildred Gillars (Axis Sally)". All About History. Archived from the original on March 7, 2018. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  18. ^ "Axis Sally: The Americans Behind the Infamous Nazi Propaganda Broadcast". Historynet. November 23, 2009. Archived from the original on February 25, 2022. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  19. ^ "'Axis Sally', 2 Other Broadcasters Released". The Deseret News. December 24, 1946. Retrieved March 6, 2018.[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ Axis Sally (part 1) (PDF), FoIA record, Washington, DC: Department of Justice, p. 15, archived (PDF) from the original on October 15, 2012, retrieved March 6, 2018.
  21. ^ "Spinster Charged With Treason". The Canberra Times. August 23, 1948. Archived from the original on March 10, 2022. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  22. ^ "Treason: True to the Red, White & Blue". Time. March 7, 1949. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on March 10, 2008. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  23. ^ Dutkin, Howard L. (February 25, 1949). "Love for Mystic Professor Led Her to 'Destiny,' Sally Says". The Washington Post.
  24. ^ 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved February 29, 2024.
  25. ^ "'Axis Sally' Is Found Guilty; Sentence on Treason Delayed". The New York Times. Associated Press. March 11, 1949. Retrieved March 9, 2023. March 10 – A Federal jury found Mildred E. (Axis Sally) Gillars guilty of treason today ...
  26. ^ "Mildred Elizabeth Sisk: American-Born Axis Sally". HistoryNet. June 12, 2006. Archived from the original on March 7, 2018. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  27. ^ Harper, Dale P. (November 1995). "Mildred Elizabeth Sisk: American-Born Axis Sally". World War II. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on March 7, 2018. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  28. ^ "Axis Sally Is Given 10 to 30-Year Term On Treason Charge". Charleston Gazette. March 26, 1949. Archived from the original on July 10, 2018. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  29. ^ Gillars v. United States, 182 F.2d 962 (D.C. Cir. 1950).
  30. ^ "People". Time. August 3, 1959. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on November 6, 2012. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  31. ^ Jack Davis (July 10, 1961). "'Axis Sally' Out After 11 Years". Associated Press. Archived from the original on July 10, 2018. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  32. ^ Don Marsh (July 11, 1961). "Almost Silent 'Axis Sally' Gains Freedom". Charleston Gazette. Archived from the original on July 10, 2018. Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  33. ^ "Women of the Third Reich: Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (1901–1988)". Jewish Virtual Library. The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Archived from the original on October 5, 2012. Retrieved May 6, 2012.
  34. ^ "People, June 25, 1973". Time. June 25, 1973. ISSN 0040-781X. Archived from the original on October 27, 2010. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  35. ^ Madden, Hope (May 28, 2021). "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally film review". UK Film Review. Archived from the original on June 4, 2021. Retrieved September 19, 2021.
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