An American woman living in Germany during World War II, Mildred Gillars hosted several radio programs under the nickname "Axis Sally" as part of a Nazi propaganda effort to demoralize Allied troops. She later became the first woman ever convicted of treason by the United States.
The voice of Axis Sally rang out from radios across Europe and the United States: “One thing I pride myself on, is to tell you American folks the truth and hope one day that you’ll wake up to the fact that you’re being duped; that the lives of the men you love are being sacrificed for the Jewish and British interests!”
U.S. troops in Europe — the target of Axis Sally’s propaganda — laughed it off.
“In far off Berlin, Minister Goebbels thinks that Sally is rapidly undermining the morale of the American doughboy but our corporal knows that just the opposite is happening. He gets a bang out of her. All the U.S. troops love her,” wrote the Saturday Evening Post in 1944.
But the real person behind the radio persona of “Axis Sally” would be convicted of treason by the United States at the conclusion of World War II — she was an American citizen aiding the Nazi German war effort.
Her name was Mildred Gillars.
Mildred Gillars, The Voice Of Axis Sally
Mildred Gillars was born in Maine in 1900. Her family soon relocated to Ohio, and by all accounts, she had a relatively normal childhood, save for a reportedly alcoholic stepfather.
She enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University for dramatic arts in 1918. She portrayed the dramatic lead, the femme fatale, in all her school’s productions. She was so good of an actress, she thought, that she dropped out of school and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City to pursue a theatrical career.
However, after several stints in the chorus and a few touring vaudeville productions, Gillars gave up on the idea of becoming a star. She moved to Paris for a few months and then relocated to Algeria before settling down in Germany in 1934.
By 1941, the U.S. State Department was advising American citizens to leave Germany or any German-controlled territories before U.S. involvement in World War II. But Gillars had just landed a gig with German state radio, and her fiancé, a German citizen, said he wouldn’t marry her if she went home to the United States.
So she stayed.
But then her fiancé was killed in action on the Eastern Front. Her radio broadcasts, which had started out largely apolitical, turned loud and propagandist with the help of her new lover, Max Otto Koischwitz, a program director at Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft (RRG).
“I say damn Roosevelt and Churchill, and all of their Jews who have made this war possible,” Gillars said on one of her broadcasts, according to Warfare History Network.
Gillars became the highest-paid broadcaster on the German Foreign Ministry’s Overseas Service, and she hosted a variety of shows over five years, including Home Sweet Home, Midge at the Mike, GI’s Letter-box, and Medical Reports. Her broadcasts focused on making American soldiers homesick and causing their families to worry about their health and safety, spreading propaganda in between jaunty big-band tunes.
Axis Sally’s Daring Mission
Each of Mildred Gillars’ broadcast programs had a different angle on the same goal — to influence American soldiers and their families to give up on the war effort.
Home Sweet Home focused on making American soldiers homesick, especially by calling into question the loyalty of their wives and girlfriends, while GI’s Letter-box and Medical Reports reported vague information about American soldiers who were wounded or captured to instill fear into their families.
Gillars and Koischwitz even went so far as to visit hospitals and POW camps, pretending to be representatives of the American Red Cross to interview these soldiers. They would then edit the interviews to make it seem like the American soldiers were sympathetic to the Nazi cause — or at the very least that they were not poorly treated.
But Gillars’s most famous broadcast, and the one that would eventually land her in prison for treason in the United States, was on May 11, 1944. She performed a radio play called Vision of Invasion, written by Koischwitz, where she played a mother from Ohio who dreamed her son died a brutal death on a ship in the English Channel while attempting to invade German-occupied France. This eerily foreshadowed the events of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, which would occur less than a month later.
“The whole world, waiting and watching for hundreds of thousands of young men to be slaughtered on the beaches of Europe and you — you laugh!” Gillars’s character, Evelyn, cried out, as reported by the Washington Post.
This broadcast has led some to believe that Gillars might have known more than she let on about the goings-on of the Nazi effort. This theory is bolstered by the fact that one of her most prized possessions, according to one of her friends after she was released from prison, was a cup given to her by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.
“How much did she know?” asks Richard Lucas, author of Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany.
Where Did Axis Sally’s Loyalties Lie?
Mildred Gillars was not “Axis Sally” at first. She steadfastly denied that she ever wanted America to lose the war.
“My war was with England and the Jews,” she said at her trial.
After Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, Gillars vehemently attacked Japan off-air. But that led to an investigation by the Gestapo, and she then swore an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler to be able to resume her broadcasts and avoid detention in a concentration camp.
Gillars also claimed that, in some ways, she was manipulated by Koischwitz, a married man with children.
“I loved him, and was willing to die for him,” she said at her trial.
Gillars believed that Koischwitz would leave his wife and children and marry her instead. This would have given her German citizenship and protected her from American treason charges.
But even if he was planning on marrying her, Koischwitz died in 1944 before he could. She remained an American citizen, leaving her vulnerable to prosecution for her actions in the German war effort.
But reportedly, Gillars feared being accused of treason.
“If she had something in the script that she thought was going to make her liable for treason in the future she fought it,” Lucas said.
In 1943, an Italian-American woman named Rita Zucca took on the mantle of “Axis Sally” as well. She began broadcasting similar Nazi propaganda from Italy. Gillars did not like that the two women were confused for one another or believed to be the same person, especially considering that Zucca took the propaganda a step further by discussing military efforts in order to confuse American troops.
“I felt that I could be responsible for anything that I said and I didn’t want any confusion after the end of the war as to what I said,” she said, according to History Net. “It caused a great deal of trouble.”
The United States also attempted to prosecute Zucca for treason, but unlike Gillars, she had renounced her American citizenship.
Mildred Gillars’ Trial And Imprisonment
After the war ended, the U.S. attorney general sent a prosecutor to Berlin to find Mildred Gillars.
It wasn’t an easy task, as they did not know her real name, and she used several aliases. But she was eventually found and transported back to America in 1948, where she was charged with 10 counts of treason.
Gillars’ trial began on Jan. 25, 1949. The prosecution played tapes of her broadcasts recorded by the Federal Communications Commission, including Vision of Invasion. Meanwhile, the defense argued that while she broadcast unpopular opinions, that did not amount to treason. Gillars claimed that she was a paid performer, not a traitor.
“You could not just go around [Nazi Germany] saying, ‘I don’t want to do this’ and ‘I don’t want to do that,'” she said.
In the end, Gillars was convicted on one count of treason for making the Vision of Invasion broadcast. She served 12 years in prison at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia.
She initially did not apply for parole when she was first eligible because she feared retribution in the United States or that she would be deported back to Germany. But while she was in prison, she converted to Catholicism, and a convent in Columbus, Ohio, near her hometown of Bellevue, offered her a job with room and board teaching music.
She was released from prison on July 10, 1961, and went on to live an anonymous life. Her neighbors and friends in Columbus didn’t even know she was Axis Sally, a woman convicted of treason against the United States, until her death in 1988.
“I often tell students that Mildred’s story illustrates the limits of history,” Ohio Wesleyan professor Michael Flamm told OWU’s History This Week. “We can know what happened, but we can’t know why it happened.”
After reading about Mildred Gillars, also known as Axis Sally, see chilling photos of the Hitler Youth, an army built to raise Nazi soldiers. Or, check out these 33 American World War II propaganda posters.