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Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (November 29, 1900 – June 25, 1988) was an American broadcaster employed by Nazi Germany to disseminate Axis 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. Along with Rita Zucca she was nicknamed “Axis Sally”.
Born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk in Portland, Maine, she took the surname Gillars in 1911 after her mother remarried. Her family resided in Bellevue, Ohio where her father was a dentist. 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.
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. Gillars 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, Gillars 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, Gillars 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 controlled 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 aid the German war effort in the Eastern Front, where he was killed in action.
Gillars’ initial broadcasts were largely apolitical, however 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 “Bitch of Berlin,” 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.”
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.
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 famous broadcast on May 11, 1944, a few weeks 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.
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