By Matt Stevenson
When an American GI sailed across the Atlantic to combat the Axis forces in Europe of the 1940s, he had a good chance of hearing the following broadcast from Berlin on the ship’s radio: “Hello, gang. Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home. There’s no getting the Germans down!” (qtd. in Davis). In a sultry, seductive voice, the woman behind the strange telecast might switch to a more specific tack, and one unfortunate US soldier along with all his comrades might hear something like this: “By the way, Sgt. Robert Smith, you remember Bill Jones, the guy with the flashy convertible who always had an eye for your wife Annabelle? Well, they have been seen together frequently over the past few months and last week he moved in with her. Let’s take a break here and listen to some of Glen Miller” (qtd. in “Axis Sally,” B-24 Liberator Crew). Then popular American music of the time would blast over the radio, leaving the GIs alone in the hold of the ship to ponder the message they had just heard as they traveled slowly across the cold Atlantic to war-torn Europe. Who authored these unusual messages? Where did she come from? And, perhaps most importantly, what effect did her propaganda have on the morale of American soldiers?
Mildred Elizabeth Sisk, later known as Mildred Gillars, was born on November 29, 1900, to an intact American family in Portland, Maine. When the young Mildred was seven, her mother Mae sought a divorce from her old husband and remarried a dentist, Dr. Robert Bruce Gillars. It was from this man that acquired the last name she is most commonly known to have today. Gillars’ new family moved around the country to a variety of different places, and eventually she graduated from high school in Ohio. She pursued an interest in drama and acting at Ohio Wesleyan University. Despite achieving high marks in acting, speech, and language courses, however, Gillars failed to satisfy the core requirements needed by all university students for graduation and never received her degree. She worked a variety of menial jobs, such as waitressing and cashiering, after dropping out in order to support her dream of becoming an actress (Harper 1). During these early years, Gillars learned the skills she would later use so effectively against her country of origin. One can speculate whether her failure to follow through in college led her to fail later on as a professional actress in the United States, eventually leading her to employment as a voice actress for Radio Berlin.
In 1929 she had her first experience of life outside the United States, traveling to France where she stayed with her mother for six months. She soon returned to the US and migrated to New York, where she worked as a small-time actress in musical comedies and finally graduated from Hunter College. It was at Hunter College that she met the man who would lead her to an unlikely career. A professor at the college, Max Otto Koischwitz fell in love with Gillars after meeting her when she was a student in one of his classes. Koischwitz returned to Germany in 1933, renounced his American citizenship, and became one of the chiefs of propaganda broadcasting for the Nazis in the Second World War (Harper 1). In 1934, Gillars followed Koischwitz to his homeland, renewing her love affair with him in Berlin, and her career as a propagandizing broadcaster for Radio Berlin was then primed to begin.
In Berlin, Gillars worked initially as an English instructor at the Berlitz school of Languages. Unhappy with the pay situation in this first job, where Russian instructors earned more than English instructors, and perhaps longing for more widespread exposure such as one would find in an acting career, Gillars decided in 1940 to accept a position as a radio actress and broadcaster with a company called Radio Berlin (Harper 1). By this time she had become romantically reunited with Max Otto Koischwitz, who became Program Director for Radio Berlin and as her superior supported her in making many of the propagandistic broadcasts which she would send out in the years to come.
Mildred Gillars’ radio show, on which she referred to herself as “Midge at the mike,” was called “Home Sweet Home” and usually aired sometime between 8 pm and 2 am almost every day from December 11, 1941, to May 6, 1945 (“Axis Sally,” Our Family’s Military Heroes). The typical content of a show would include a good variety of popular American music interspersed with the misinformation that made Gillars notorious. The propaganda could be of several kinds: attacks on the Jews, forecasts of doom, reports of injury and death, and taunts.
Gillars’ propaganda often took the form of attacks on the Jews in accordance with Nazi beliefs, along with tirades against the United States and in particular Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom Gillars hated. These attacks were frequently vicious, direct, and cruel in their content, rather than subtle or comic. As an example, in one of her rants against Roosevelt, Gillars said, “Damn Roosevelt! Damn Churchill. Damn all Jews who made this war possible. I love America, but I do not love Roosevelt and all his kike boyfriends” (qtd. in Masayo).
In addition to crafting these anti-Semitic attacks, Gillar would forecast doom for the American troops upon their meeting the German forces. Gillars’ most famous broadcast, delivered on May 6, 1944, was a radio play titled “Vision of Invasion” which forecast total annihilation for the American troops who were preparing to cross the English Channel to invade France on D-Day. In this play, an American mother, voiced by Gillars, lamented the loss of her son, who returned in a dream to tell her of his death in the English Channel. During the broadcast, an announcer’s voice boomed, “The D of D-Day stands for doom…disaster…death…defeat…Dunkirk or Dieppe” (qtd. in Snippy_about_it).
Often, Gillars’s broadcasts circulated reports about the injuries or supposedly impending deaths of specific US soldiers. Gillars posed as an International Red Cross worker and visited hospitals where wounded American GIs were staying in order to get names and solicit recordings from the GIs which she would alter and then beam back to their families on “Home Sweet Home.” Gilbert Lee Hansford, an American GI, reported that Gillars visited him in August 1944 while he was held captive at a Paris hospital (Harper 1). According to Hansford, she approached him and his comrades with two German soldiers and said, “Hello boys, I’m here to make recordings so your folks will know you are still alive” (qtd. in Harper 1). Gillars would take what the soldiers said, insert Nazi propaganda into the comments to make it sound as if the wounded US GIs were telling their fellow Americans to give up, and then report it all on her radio show. In his article “Mildred Elizabeth Sisk: American-Born Axis Sally,” Dale P. Harper describes the sadistically-teasing and cruel reports which Gillars would give in these situations:
Finally, Gillars’ propagandistic broadcasts included taunts directed at American soldiers implying that their wives and girlfriends were seeing other men. Gillars was particularly well known for her sexy, seductive manner of speech, and she used it effectively to needle her listeners between song broadcasts. At the beginning of her broadcasts, she would often say something like, “Hi fellows, I’m afraid you’re yearning plenty for someone else. But I just wonder if she isn’t running around with the 4-Fs way back home” (qtd. in Harper 1). 4-Fs were men judged unfit to serve in the armed forces for a variety of reasons. Many enlisted men became extremely resentful of those who were allowed to remain at home. The following poem, “Back Home,” which Staff Sergeant A. L. Crouch submitted to the magazine Yank during the war, exemplifies this attitude toward the 4-Fs:
They are grabbing for all they are worth.
Why do the swine get the pearls,
And the meek inherit the earth? (qtd. in Fagelson)
These were the kinds of negative feelings that Gillars played on when she, in a seemingly comic fashion, made fun of the armed US forces and questioned the fidelity of their wives and lovers.
Eventually, of course, the United States and its Allies won the war in Europe. The “Fortress Europe,” which Gillars had referred to as impregnable in her broadcasts to the US troops, had fallen to her country of origin (“Axis Sally,” The Charleston Gazette). For the next year, Gillars lived in hiding in Berlin in the French quarter of the divided city, but in 1946 she was captured by US GIs and brought home to the United States.
After being held in prison in the nation’s capital, Gillars was tried on eight counts of treason against her country in the district court in Washington, D.C., from January to March of 1949. The prosecutor, John Kelley, argued forcefully that Gillars had signed an oath of allegiance to Nazi Germany, had posed illegally as an International Red Cross worker, and had attempted hundreds of times to attack American morale via her radio broadcasts (Harper 1). Several US GIs came to the witness stand to testify against Gillars, describing their experiences both of hearing her broadcasts and, in one case, being approached by her and questioned when she posed as a worker for the Red Cross. Gillars’ lawyer, James Laughlin, attempted to defend Gillars by citing the powerful influence of Max Otto Koischwitz in pushing her to make the broadcasts. Indeed, Koischwitz was said to have had a “Svengali-like” hold over Gillars during her years of anti-US activity (Harper 2). Nevertheless, this defense was not enough to sway the jury, and although they rejected seven of the eight charges against Gillars, they found her guilty of the last one, which asserted her role in attacking US morale via her play Vision of Inferno, which was broadcast in the lead-up to D-Day. Gillars was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison with the possibility of parole after the first 10 years, and she was incarcerated in a prison called the Women’s Reformatory in Alderson, West Virginia (Harper 2).
After 10 years, Gillars was eligible for release but chose to remain at the prison voluntarily for another two years, perhaps fearing the reception she would receive from her fellow countrymen upon her release. However, on June 10, 1961 she left jail a free woman and took a job as a teacher at a small Roman Catholic girls’ school in Columbus, Ohio (Harper 2). She would go on to receive a degree in speech from Ohio Wesleyan, the college she had started at but failed to graduate from 50 years earlier—though one might assert that she had already earned her degree in speech several times over during her work in the early 1940s. Gillars continued to live as a free woman until her death on June 25, 1988, from cancer, at 87 years of age (Harper 2).
In researching this topic, I have found it very interesting and remarkable that someone from America would leave before the war and then turn so strongly against her country during it. In my research, I have not completely discovered or understood why Gillars did what she did. I can cite the influence of her German lover Koischwitz, who became a Nazi, Gillars’ own dislike of President Roosevelt and his policies, and her frustration in failing to be widely recognized as an actress in the United States as possible motivations. However, it may never be completely clear why Mildred Gillars became Axis Sally. What I am more interested in, however, is the influence she had on the morale of American troops and the way in which they responded to this influence. Morale and one’s perception of reality at any given time is incredibly important in war, because in wartime one is almost always going on the reports of others—one’s commander, the president, or a propagandist from the enemy—in order to determine what is really going on and how you should react to it. Thus, a figure like Axis Sally has an unusual opportunity in such a time to influence the minds of her fellow human beings, men and women who find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position both physically and mentally.
Looking back, I believe that the valor and moral strength of the American soldiers who fought and died serving their country in Europe is reflected in their unshakable resilience, not only when faced with the horrific wartime conditions, but also when confronted with psychological mind-f***ing from Axis Sally, Tokyo Rose, and other such figures. I use that phrase because I believe that it is the best and most direct description for the kind of effect Axis Sally tried to inflict on US troops. She wanted to screw with their minds, to catch them when they were in a vulnerable, uncertain position shortly before entering battle, and to indoctrinate them with a false, distorted view of reality so that they would view the entire situation as hopeless and give up. I admire the extraordinary courage and endurance of the American troops who persisted and triumphed through the sturm und drang of this multifaceted assault. Here is the experience of one soldier, Dent Wheeler, who encountered Axis Sally’s propaganda while fighting in the Battle of the Bulge:
One can imagine that feeling cold, hurt, lonely, and far from their families, it might be easy for the GIs to hear such a message and decide to desert. Again, the greatest courage and conviction is shown here in this man, and thousands of others like him, who would not give up when the situation may not only have seemed hopeless, but the feeling of hopelessness was being rammed down their throats by this kind of radio broadcast propaganda. The ability to hold on to such belief is a real kind of heroism, and I am awed by it.
The story of Axis Sally is an incredible tale of turning against one’s country; which Mildred Gillars had a powerful impact on the morale of American soldiers, many of whom remembered her for decades, all the way through until the present day. Her propaganda represents the kind of brainwashing which the Nazi party under Hitler inflicted on so many, and in this case unfortunately led to pain and hurt both for our soldiers and Mildred Gillars herself.
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Davis, Jack. “Axis Sally Out After 11 Years.” Charleston Daily Mail 10 July 1961.
West Virginia Division of Culture and History. June 2005. Nov. 20 2006 <http://www.wvculture.org/history/military/axissally02.html>.
Fagelson, William Friedman. “Fighting Films: The Everyday Tactics of WW2 Soldiers.” Cinema Journal 40.3 (2001) 94-112. Nov 21 2006 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/cinema_journal/v040/ 40.3fagelson.html>.
Fuller, M. Williams. Axis Sally. Santa Barbara: Paradise West Publishing, 2003.
Harper, Dale P. “Mildred Elizabeth Sisk: American-born Axis Sally.” World War 2 Magazine Nov. 1995. Weider History Group. 20 Nov. 2006 <http://www.historynet.com/magazines/world_ war_2/3032576.html>.
Masayo, Duus. Tokyo Rose: Orphan of the Pacific. New York: Kodansha International, Ltd., 1979.
Snippy_about_it (author). The FReeper Foxhole Profiles Axis Sally – August 21st, 2004. Online Posting. Aug. 21 2004. Free Republic Discussion Board. 20 Nov. 2006 <http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-vetscor/1196108/posts>.
Wheeler, Dent. “Axis Sally.” Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, ed. Robert Van Houten. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Co., 1991. PBS. 2002. 18 Nov. 2006 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bulge/sfeature/sf_dispatch_dw.html>.