Mildred Gillars (Bureau of Prisons ID photo)
Mildred Elizabeth Sisk
November 29, 1900
|Died||June 25, 1988 (aged 87)|
|Resting place||Saint Joseph Cemetery, Columbus, Ohio|
|Other names||Midge at the Mike|
|Education||Ohio Wesleyan University|
|Occupation||Radio announcer and actress|
|Employer||Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (i.e. German State Radio)|
|Known for||Presenting Nazi propaganda on German State Radio during World War II|
|Parent(s)||Vincent Michael Sisk and Mary J. Hewitson|
Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (November 29, 1900 – June 25, 1988), nicknamed "Axis Sally" along with Rita Zucca, was an American broadcaster employed by Nazi Germany to disseminate propaganda during World War II. Following her capture in post-war Berlin, she became the first woman to be convicted of treason against the United States. In March 1949, she was sentenced to ten to thirty years' imprisonment. She was released in 1961.
Born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk in Portland, Maine, she took the surname Gillars in 1911 after her mother remarried. At 16, she moved to Conneaut, Ohio, with her family. In 1918, she enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University to study dramatic arts, but left without graduating.
She 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. She also worked as an artist's model for sculptor Mario Korbel, but was unable to find regular employment, so in 1929, she moved to France and lived in Paris for six months.
In 1933, she left the United States again, residing first in Algiers, where she found work as a dressmaker's assistant. 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.
In 1940, she obtained work as an announcer with the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG), German State Radio.
By 1941, the US State Department was advising American nationals to leave Germany and German occupied territories. However, Gillars chose to remain because her fiancé, Paul Karlson, 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.
Gillars' broadcasts initially were largely apolitical. This changed in 1942 when Max Otto Koischwitz, the program director in the USA Zone at the RRG, cast Gillars in a new show called Home Sweet Home. She soon acquired several names amongst her GI audience, including the Berlin Bitch, Berlin Babe, Olga, and Sally, but the one most common was "Axis Sally". This name probably came when asked on air to describe herself, Gillars had said she was "the Irish type… a real Sally."
In 1943, an Italian-American woman, Rita Zucca, also began broadcasting to American troops 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.
Gillars' main programs from Berlin were:
- Home Sweet Home Hour, from December 24, 1942, until 1945, 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". 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.
- Midge at the Mike, broadcast from March to late fall 1943, in which she played American songs interspersed with defeatist propaganda, anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks on Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- GI's Letter-box and Medical Reports (1944), 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, falsely claiming to be a representative of the International Red Cross. In 1943 they had toured POW camps in Germany, interviewing captured Americans and recording their messages for their families in the US. The interviews were then edited for broadcast as though the speakers were well-treated or sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
Gillars made her most notorious broadcast on June 5, 1944, just prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, in a radio play written by Koischwitz, 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.
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 German surrender.
Arrest, trial, and imprisonment
The US attorney general dispatched prosecutor Victor C. Woerheide to Berlin to find and arrest Gillars. He and Counterintelligence Corps special agent Hans Winzen had only 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 Mike". According to Kurtz, the woman had used the alias Barbara Mome. Woerheide organised wanted posters with Gillars' picture to put up in Berlin, but 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 who was found selling a table belonging to Gillars was detained, and under "intensive interrogation" revealed Gillars' address. When she was arrested on March 15, 1946, Gillars only asked to take with her a picture of Koischwitz.
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. She was formally re-arrested on January 22, 1947 at the request of the Justice Department and was eventually flown to the United States to await trial on August 21, 1948.
Gillars was indicted on September 10, 1948, and charged with ten counts of treason, but only eight were proceeded with 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 active participation in propaganda activities against the United States. It was also shown that she had taken an oath of allegiance to Hitler. The defense argued that her broadcasts stated unpopular opinions but did not amount to treasonable conduct. It was also argued that she was under the hypnotic influence of Koischwitz and therefore not fully responsible for her actions until after his death. 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. In 1950, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the conviction.
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. She was released on June 10, 1961.
Having converted to Roman 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.
In 1973 she returned to Ohio Wesleyan University to complete her degree.
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