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Notes and Quotes- October 24, 2021


Axis Sally: A Traitor or Not?

By Tom Morrow

In 1933, well into the Great Depression, Ohio-born Mildred Gillars followed her lover to Europe looking for work. When she finally landed a full-time job as an English-speaking broadcaster with the Nazi-controlled German State Radio, her fate as an American traitor was sealed.

Mildred ‘Axis Sally’ Gillars

Mildred Elizabeth Gillars, born Nov. 29, 1900, and nicknamed “Axis Sally,” was hired to disseminate Nazi 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.
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 grad. In 1918, she enrolled at Ohio Wesleyan University to study dramatic arts, but left without graduating.
She then moved to 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 Gillars was unable to establish a theatrical career. She was unable to find regular employment, so in 1929, she moved to France, living in Paris for six months.
In 1934, Gillars 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, she obtained work as an announcer with the German State Radio. By 1941, the U.S. 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 on the Eastern Front, where he was killed in action.
Gillars’ broadcasts initially were mostly non-political. This changed in 1942 when Max Otto Koischwitz, director of programming for broadcasts aimed at America, cast Gillars in a new English language show called “Home Sweet Home Hour.” She soon acquired several names amongst her GI audience, including the “Bitch of Berlin,” Berlin Babe, Olga, and Sally, but the one most common moniker was “Axis Sally.” This name probably came when, asked on air to describe herself, Gillars said she was “the Irish type … a real Sally.”
Mildred Gillars under arrest

The “Home Sweet Home Hour,” began on Dec. 24, 1942, and ran until Germany surrendered in 1945. It was a Nazi propaganda program aimed at making U.S. forces in Europe feel homesick. Gillars insisted all of her broadcasts were written and directed by Joseph Goebbels, the chief Nazi propagandist. None of her words were her own. Gillars said she was a virtual prisoner because Goebbels had taken her passport and travel documents, prohibiting her from leaving Germany.
The running theme of those short-wave radio broadcasts was the infidelity of U.S. soldiers’ wives and sweethearts while the listeners were stationed in Europe and North Africa. She posed questions as to whether soldiers’ sweethearts would remain faithful, “… especially if you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece.” Opening with the sound of a train, the broadcasts 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 post-war prospects.
After D-Day (June 6, 1944), Gillars visited German hospitals, interviewing Allied POWs, while falsely claiming to be a representative of the International Red Cross. In 1943, she reportedly toured POW camps interviewing captured Americans, recording their messages for their families in the U.S. The interviews were then edited for broadcast as though the speakers were well-treated or sympathetic to the Nazi cause.
Iva Toguri D'Aquino
Iva Toguri D’Aquino

Gillars’ last broadcast was May 6, 1945, just two days before Germany’s surrender. U.S. authorities found her living in Berlin. Gillars was flown back to the U.S., charged with 8 counts of treason. On March 10, 1949, the jury convicted Gillars on just one count of treason. She was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison. On July 10, 1961, after 12 years, Gillars was released.
She returned as a student to Ohio Wesleyan University to complete a bachelor’s degree in speech. She always maintained the words she uttered over the airwaves were never hers, rather those of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi authorities.
Japanese-American counterpart, Iva Toguri D’ Aquino, a.k.a. “Tokyo Rose,” also was convicted of treason, spending 6 years in prison. She later was pardoned by President Ford. Today, history has dubbed both women as traitors. Aquino’s story, to be told in next week’s column, is even more complex than Gillars.
On June 25, 1988, at age 88, Gillars died of colon cancer in Columbus, Ohio in relative obscurity. Aquino died on Sept. 27, 2006, of natural causes in Chicago at the age of 90.

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Notes and Quotes- October 24, 2021