Propaganda has been featured in innumerable wars. It had gained exceptional strength over the last one hundred and fifty years with a seemingly peak of excellent during World War II on both sides. The masses were manipulated into their respective drafts or support for the war as countries clashed and fought across the nations of Europe, the stretches of land in Africa or the islands in Asia. Without a sly and quick propaganda machine, mustering support for any war could be difficult, especially one which held as much reluctance for most as World War II. Mildred Gillars was one such propagandist.
Originally born in Portland Maine in November 1900, Mildred was originally named Mildred Sisk. Her name change occurred after her mother divorced her alcoholic father and married Robert Gillars, a dentist in the area before moving to Conneaut, Ohio when Mildred was 16.1 From that point she enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University where she took public-speaking.2 But she was not meant for success.
In the 1920s she left Ohio in attempts to be an actress. She first met with trouble with the police when she pretended to attempt suicide on the Philadelphia bridge in 1927 in an effort to promote a “sleazy” movie; again she would have a run-in with the police in 1928 after fooling the newspapers that she’d been an abandoned New Jersey bride. After her failed attempts in America, she fled to Europe where she became an artist’s model in Paris and by 1933 she was a dressmaker’s assistant in Algiers.4 Instability had ruled Mildred’s childhood and had permeated through to adulthood.
By the mid 1930s she had returned to Europe and had entered Berlin. While she hadn’t hammered down a career yet, she was teaching English for the Berlitz School in Berlin. It was shortly after this where she received a job offer at Radio Berlin to be an announcer and an actress.5 At the time she was largely confined to broadcasting in English to the British Isles but this would change with the onset of World War II; between August and September 1943, she was broadcasting to American troops. These broadcasts, particularly the “Home, Sweet Home” broadcasts, played jazz music, short political commentary and humorous skits.6 While Mildred had discovered what she loved and liked to do, to broadcast, be an actress and be heard, it wouldn’t work well for her in the end.
Not only did she find her supposed calling within propaganda, she also claims to have found love. Max Otto Koischwitz had been a professor of New York’s Hunter College and when confronted she admitted, ” “I consider Professor Koischwitz to have been my destiny…” She went on with her idealistic prose when adding that he was a man, “…who loved the mountains [of Silesia] with the intensity that a man might love a woman.” As he was a Foreign Office radio official, their meetings must’ve been many. There are those who prefer to claim that Gillars was heavily influence by Koischwitz but this is likely due to the inability to see women as honestly as they saw men. She mirrored her lover in her anti-British, anti-Jewish and anti-Roosevelt views.7 Whether influenced by Koischwitz or not, her words remain hers in their entirety.
Her propaganda filled the ears of Allied soldiers, attempting to destroy their morale. As the Allies came into North Africa and Europe she welcomed them while promising a speedy demise. Perhaps even more cause for concern was her accuracy in reciting passwords. During the summer of 1944 a GI in Italy reported that she was able to broadcast his unit’s passwords at night. Medic Robert Franklin, after landing in Anzio in Italy later said that her reports were, “…accurate beyond comprehension… [which included] names of company commanders and newly arrived officers.”8
She would continue to sound eerie and leave a lingering worry in the mind of the soldiers. Mildred would begin with her introduction, “Hello, everybody tuning in this is Midge…” before getting into detail. In one broadcast she mentioned specifically, “[The wounded Allied soldiers] know now that they are simply cannon fodder to aid and abet Jewish interests. 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-“9 while calling the war a “Jewish War.” She’d also call out singular soldiers who’d just arrive, mentioning how their mothers may miss them and how they’d hate to receive a missing in action notice back at home.
Furthermore, she’d tease the men over the radio. If mothers and potential death or fighting a war for another group hadn’t won them over, she went after their heart. She told the soldiers to think of the girls they left behind and the troubles they’d have returning home, “…especially if you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece.”10 In the waning days of the war, notably during Operation Varsity which included 2,926 C-45/Dakota sorties and more than 14,400 troops, Sally was at it again, threatening, “We know you are coming 17th Airborne Division. You will not need parachutes; you can walk down on the flak.”11 It was clear she was going to be defiant until the last moment.
The process to capture Mildred Gillars had already been set in motion in 1943. A federal indictment came through on 26 July 1943 for treason against eight Americans which included Gillars’ boyfriend. Mildred seems to have been left out, however, this appears to be only because the US government had yet to officially identify Axis Sally.12 Through the years she would occasionally make visits to the POW camps in order to interact with the soldiers under a different name in an attempt to interview them and convince them to say that they were given good food and plenty of recreation. It was through some of these means with which she was identified later by POWs.13
Mildred didn’t receive any sympathy in the press. As much as Americans love to believe that there was a golden age of journalism, no such objective opinions have ever existed. While Mildred was guilty of her crimes, newspapers still branded her as “horse-faced.” While not entirely untrue, it is an unprofessional jab which shows the anger the American public had endured through years of war.14 In spite of all the proof and years of propagandizing, she claimed it wasn’t her fault.
Who’s fault was it? Her propagandizing was apparently America’s fault. According to Mildred, she was called into the US Embassy in the spring of 1941 where a vice consul took her passport and refused to give it back. Then when Pearl Harbor occurred, she claimed she had to sign an oath of allegiance to Germany. As for why she got into broadcasting, she noted,” It is obvious that one has to live, somehow.”15 This statement, of course, is still an admission of guilt.
She went on to continue blaming others. She claimed to have been swept up and didn’t actually give “political broadcasts.”16 Instead, as noted of her claims, she was affected by love through Max Otto Koischwitz’s influence.
When her attorney asked Mildred if she had ever “intended to adhere to the enemy,” Mildred answered, “Anyone who knows me knows it isn’t true.”17 But she had already failed. And lied.
Mildred Gillars was charged with treason and would face a Grand Jury along with Iva Togure, aka, Tokyo Rose.18 Gillars would receive a 10 to 30-year sentence at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. While there she converted to Roman Catholicism and showed a proclivity for teaching. She was released in 1961 and attended Our Lady of Bethlehem convent. She died from cancer in 1988 and is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Joseph Cemetery in Lockbourne.19 Mildred often said she was oblivious to what the Nazis were doing but given her interaction with POWs, her seeming freedom and her personal views against Jews, it is very unlikely she didn’t know, or if she hadn’t known, that she didn’t support it.
In spite of her efforts at propaganda, personnel would still tune into Axis Sally’s broadcasts. Knowing full well what they were receiving, they could take it in stride. Explaining why anyone listened to Axis Sally at all as opposed to American Forces Radio, a GI noted, “Not only is she more humorous, but a great deal more reliable on news and far more up-to-date.”20
Mildred Gillars grew up roughly and never truly found her feet until she had been pushed into prison. While it does seem that she had reformed herself, at the very least on the outside, she had been treated differently just because she was a woman. While giving aid and comfort to the enemy and working for the enemy during wartime are serious crimes within a nation, Gillars was released with hardly any punishment at all. Gillars was an untrusty and traitorous woman not only to America but to Germany as well; if she had any loyalty at all, it was to that of love, even if only to be used as an excuse.
2 Time: Big Role
5 Traitors & Turncoats
6 US Government p 6
7 Time: Big Role
8 Mechanical Reproduction p 49
9 US Government pp 13-4
10 ibid. p 50
11 Skytrain p 154
12 Lucas chapter 5
13 US Government p 4 & 19
14 Time: Big Role
17 Time: Big Role
20 Mechanical Reproduction
Blundo, Joe. “Sally’s Axis of Evil Ended at Convent in Columbus.” The Columbus Dispatch. The Columbus Dispatch, January 21, 2013. https://archive.vn/20130121200114/http://www.dispatch.com/live/content/arts/stories/2011/01/30/sallys-axis-of-evil-ended-at-convent-in-columbus.html?sid=101.
Crofton, Ian. “Traitors & Turncoats : Twenty Tales of Treason from Benedict Arnold to Ezra Pound.” Internet Archive. London : Quercus, 2010. https://archive.org/details/traitorsturncoat0000crof/page/131/mode/2up?view=theater.
Kaplan, Philip. Skytrain: A Transport Revolution. New York, NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2018.
Lucas, Richard. “Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.” Google Books. Google. Accessed September 18, 2022. https://books.google.com.ph/books?hl=en&lr=&id=wPJgsY4_C7MC&oi=fnd&pg=PT6&dq=axis%2Bsally&ots=Z2u1c3xrM4&sig=QuwaI1mCSGkJRLtoMdznZOYPxF4&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=axis%20sally&f=false.
“Spinster Charged with Treason.” Trove. The Camberra Times. Accessed September 7, 2022. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2762025?searchTerm=MILDRED%2BGILLARS.
Suisman, David, and Susan Strasser, eds. “Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Google Books. Google. Accessed September 8, 2022. https://books.google.com.ph/books?hl=en&lr=&id=jfyAcRjXBysC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=axis%2Bsally&ots=vBR4nlbOBC&sig=lgjQph6err_sp1ZIHjSPLjxjys0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=axis%20sally&f=false.
“Treason: Big Role.” TIME.com. Accessed September 8, 2022. https://web.archive.org/web/20110131015725/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,799748,00.html.
United States Government. “Mildred Elizabeth Gillars, Was ‘Axis Sally,” Mildred Elizabeth Treason February 25 1947.” Accessed September 8, 2023. https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/criminal/legacy/2010/04/11/axis-sally-p1.pdf.