In the height of the Second World War, exhausted American soldiers hunker in their makeshift camps. They are dirty and exhausted, not just from the day’s battle, but from years of continuous warfare. Friends have been lost. Comrades have been maimed. And home–America–has never felt further away.
Someone pulls out a radio. The upbeat melody of a familiar tune–Duke Ellington, perhaps?–begins to float among the soldiers. As the horns start to fade, the soothing voices of the Andrews Sisters waft out to take their place. The men are still bloodied. They are still hungry. They are still tired, battered, and in the middle of a war zone. But, for those few moments, they begin to relax. They feel, at last, as if they are home.
And then she starts to talk.
“This is Berlin calling,” comes the sultry, soothing female voice. “And I’d just like to say that when Berlin calls, it pays to listen.”
So began the nightly charade of Axis Sally, as she was known to American troops. In between playing swing and jazz music–which the Americans loved but Nazis hated–she would denounce the Jews and Franklin Roosevelt, on whom she blamed the war. She would tell the Americans they were fighting on the wrong side; the Germans were actually their friends. She would remind the troops of the good life waiting for them back at home, if they made it there. And if, she often hinted, their wives and girlfriends hadn’t run off with other men.
Typical German propaganda. Except the woman speaking wasn’t German.
“Axis Sally” was actually Mildred Sisk, born in 1900 in Portland, Maine. In 1911, her mother married Robert Bruce Gillars, and she took his surname, becoming Mildred Gillars. Her stepfather was an abusive man, and Mildred’s childhood was marked by trauma; it’s no wonder she found herself drawn to acting and a world of make-believe. Later, she attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where she studied drama, though she left without graduating and moved to New York in hopes of making it big.
It didn’t work out.
Frustrated, Mildred abandoned New York and followed a lover to Algiers before ultimately leaving him to travel Europe with her mother. The pair ended up in Berlin in 1934, just as Adolf Hitler was proclaiming himself absolute dictator of Germany. Sensing a stench on the air, Mildred’s mother returned back to the States; Mildred, on the other, having nothing to return to (at least in her mind) decided to remain in Berlin to study music. She found at job at the Berliz School teaching English and writing film and theater reviews for Variety. In 1940, she took a job at the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, or German State Radio Corporation.
By this point, the Nazi propaganda machine was already a well-oiled beast with Minister Josef Goebbels at its helm. Goebbels saw not only the value of propaganda but its power as well–if done correctly. After all, it was propaganda that had led to the Nazis rise in power in the first place. Print was important, yes, but it was radio, Goebbels believed, that would have the biggest effect on the outcome of the war. Short-wave radio had an enormous reach and was being used by both Axis and Allied forces to reach listeners throughout Europe and across the Atlantic.
But being barked at in German or, worse, in English with a heavy German accent, did not have the effect on Americans Goebbels was looking for. He knew he needed that in order to reach Americans, he needed to appeal to American culture through both speech and music. And, as luck would have it, there was an American woman working for the German State Radio at just that very moment.
Under the guidance of Max Otto Koischwitz (with whom she became romantically involved), Gillars began starring in several propaganda shows aimed at the dismantling the morale of American troops. Her most regular was entitled Home Sweet Home, and intended to undermine the fears of troops far from home. In addition to stoking fears about unfaithful wives and girlfriends, the broadcast tried to make soldiers feel doubt about their mission, their leaders, and their prospects after the war. Other programs included Midge at the Mike, which contained more direct defeatist propaganda against Jews and President Roosevelt, and G.I.’s Letterbox and Medical Reports, which was directed at the U.S. stateside audience and used information on wounded and captured U.S. airmen to cause fear and worry in their families. Gillars often addressed American women in these broadcast; she felt she relate and reach these women in an impactful way because she was one of these women.
“Good evening, women of America,” she said during one of her shows. “As you know, as time goes on, I think of you more and more. I can’t somehow seem to get you out of my head. You women in America, waiting for the one you love, waiting and weeping in the secrecy of your own room, thinking of the husband, the son, or the brother who is being sacrificed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, perishing on the fringes of Europe…”
Though the content and audience of each program differed, the goal was always the same: to sow discontent and defeat into the hearts of the American people.
One program, however, went above and beyond the usual repertoire.
On May 11, 1944, just a few weeks prior to the D-Day invasion, German State Radio aired a program entitled Vision of Invasion.’ Written by Koischwitz, Gillars starred as Evelyn, a mother in Ohio who, in a dream, sees her son dying a horrific death on landing craft in the English Channel during an attempted invasion on Europe. Sounds of agonized screams and bombs could be heard in the background of the performance. It was a chilling and gruesome production…..
…and one that landed Gillars in a whole heap of trouble at war’s end.
U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps caught up with ‘Axis Sally’ in 1946, despite her attempts to blend in with the other displaced people amassing throughout Europe. She was held in internment camps until she was brought back to the U.S. to face trial in 1948, where she faced 10 counts of treason (though it was eventually reduced to eight). She was found guilty of only one–for her role in Vision of Invasion. She was fined $10,000 and sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison; she was the first woman ever convicted of treason against the United States.
Gillars served her sentence at the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alders, West Virginia. During her time behind bars, she converted to Catholicism and, upon her release in 1961 after serving 12 years, the Catholic Church arranged for her to live at the Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio. She taught German, French, and music at nearby St. Joseph Academy and even ended up going back to Ohio Wesleyan University in 1973 to complete her degree–a Bachelor of Arts in speech.
Those around her claim they had no idea about her past life until after her death in 1988.
Gillars ‘legacy is complicated one. On one hand, she claimed she toed the line, always careful that what she said never crossed the line into treason, that she stayed in Germany (and her job) for the man she loved, and that she had no knowledge about the true atrocities of Nazi Germany (including the “Final Solution”). On the flip side, one woman who was close to Gillars during her time in Columbus said that one of Gillars’ most prized possession was a cup that had been given to her by Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.
So, who was the real Axis Sally? We may never know. But what can be certain is that the program, which aired its final broadcast on this day in 1945, made a lasting impression on its listeners.
Just not the one Goebbels intended.
Writing to the Saturday Evening Post, Corporal Edward Van Dyke said, “Sally is a dandy. The sweetheart of the Armed Forces. She plays nothing but swing and good swing…We get an enormous bang out of her. We love her. ‘That’s all boys,’ she coos at the end of each broadcast, ‘and a sweet kiss from Sally.’ Well, Sally,” he added, “we’ll be in Berlin soon with a great big kiss for you…if you have any kisser left.”