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Gillars, Mildred Elizabeth

Mildred Elizabeth Gillars

Convicted American traitor Mildred Gillars (1900–1988) was a radio personality who became famous during World War II for her propaganda broadcasts for Radio Berlin in Germany. Nicknamed "Axis Sally" by her American soldier listeners, she was found guilty of treason in a United States court after the war and spent twelve years in prison.

Gillars was born on November 29, 1900. She was born as Mildred Elizabeth Sisk in Portland, Maine, to Mae Hewitson Sisk, a painter, and Vincent Sisk, an indifferent husband and father who didn't cherish the idea of having children.

When Gillars was seven years old, her father abandoned the small family. She then moved with her mother to Greenwich Village in New York City. When she was eleven, her name was changed to Mildred Gillars, after her mother officially divorced Vincent Sisk and married Dr. Robert Bruce Gillars, a dentist. The family eventually moved to Ohio.

Dreamed of Becoming an Actress

As a child, Gillars displayed exceptional talent as a pianist. She was capable of memorizing compositions by the time she was five years old. Her artistic mother financed her daughter's piano lessons by making silhouettes. But Gillars had other ambitions; she dreamed of becoming a famous star of the stage. Appropriately, she performed in school plays at the high school she attended in Conneaut, Ohio. After she graduated, she enrolled in Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, where she studied dramatic arts. Despite excelling in speech, language and her drama studies, she failed to graduate.

Still intent on an acting career, she returned to New York City, where she lived alone and took a series of menial jobs. She worked as a sales clerk, cashier, and waitress to finance her drama lessons. When not working, she went to auditions and was hired for small parts, which kept her hopes alive. She worked with touring stock companies and in vaudeville, but her efforts never led to anything more substantial.

Later, with financial assistance from her grandmother, she enrolled at Hunter College in New York. In 1925, while at Hunter, she met Max Otto Koischwitz, a German immigrant professor who would later have an enormous impact on her life. She had an affair with the charismatic professor until he revealed that he was married.

Moved to Europe

In 1929, she went to Europe with her mother. Although details about this part of her life are somewhat hazy, it appears that she studied music and worked in a variety of disparate jobs. Various accounts have her working as a governess, an artist model and sales girl and studying music in Paris or Germany.

Later, she returned to America, where she continued pursuing an acting career, but she returned to Europe in 1932, where she once again encountered Koischwitz, who was now handling propaganda on Radio Berlin for the emerging German Nationalist Party. In Europe, Gillars still tried to become a famous actress but, once again, her ambitions were thwarted. Koischwitz encouraged her to work with him as a broadcaster, and she was enticed by the exposure the job would provide.

Koischewitz was Radio Berlin's program director, and he would become Gillars' supervisor. Reportedly, Gillars worked as a DJ who played music and engaged in on-air anti-semitic rants. The job proved lucrative—she was one of the highest paid staff members—and it satisfied her desire for recognition. In addition, she once again became Koischwitz's lover. She would remain at the broadcasting post until Germany was defeated by Allied Forces in World War II.

Became "Midge"

With Radio Berlin, Gillars' official title was "Station Mistress of Ceremonies for the Entertainment Programs of the European Services of Reich Broadcasting," and she hosted a propaganda program called Home Sweet Home. She dubbed herself "Midge at the Mike," and her duty was to offer the "expatriate American community" music as well as a German perspective on world affairs. Essentially, that translated into providing listeners with news and views slanted toward the Nazi Party line, as her material was in part prepared by Josef Goebbels and other high-ranking German officials.

During World War II, for a period lasting from December 11, 1941 to May 6, 1945, her show was heard across Europe, in the Mediterranean region, and in North Africa. It was even beamed into the United States. For the most part, the program was broadcast from Berlin, but Gillars also worked from German-occupied territories including Chartres and Paris in France and Hilversum in the Netherlands.

Her broadcasts were designed to weaken the morale of U.S soldiers. She played sentimental American music intended to make them feel homesick and, more significantly, she taunted the soldiers by suggesting, in not-so-subtle fashion, that their wives and girlfriends were being unfaithful while they were overseas. She even obtained information about specific towns and people, to make her lurid suggestions more credible.

Reportedly, most of the American soldiers who listened to her show, which usually aired from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., where unaffected by Gillars' on-air wiles, and they took to calling her "Axis Sally." Her voice was sultry and sexy and they found her to be entertaining, in a skewed sort of fashion.

Still, Gillars demonstrated a resourceful deviousness that greatly offended the stateside audience and the U.S. government. She managed to obtain the names, serial numbers and hometown information of wounded and captured U.S. soldiers, and she used this information to provoke fear and worry in the soldiers' families. With her broadcasts reaching the United States, avid listeners included members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stationed in Silver Hill, Maryland. Soldiers may have been amused by "Axis Sally's" on-air antics, but the commission was not. The FCC monitored and recorded her broadcasts, which provided prosecutors with evidence when Gillars was later transported back to the United States to stand trial for treason.

The Damning "Vision" Broadcast

During this period, Gillars even posed as a representative of the International Red Cross, visiting American prisoners of war and trying to coerce them into recording messages to their families that she could intersperse with her typical propaganda. This activity, too, would come back to haunt her during her treason trial.

But what turned out to be her most damning effort was a broadcast entitled "Vision of an Invasion." This radio drama, which depicted a failed Allied invasion, aired on May 11, 1944, several weeks before the D-Day invasion of Normandy. For the broadcast, Gillars, ever the aspiring actress, portrayed an Ohio mother who experiences a vivid dream of her son's excruciating death on a ship destroyed by Germans as it attempts to cross the English Channel. The show was specifically aimed at American troops stationed in England who would take part in the large-scale military operation. The message was that the Allied soldiers who invaded Europe would face wholesale slaughter.

The broadcast was replete with realistic and unnerving sound effects, including the cries of wounded soldiers and the sound of gunfire and explosions. The impression created was that of a massacre, and the ambitious effort would later prove Gillars' undoing in the American court.

Charged with Treason

Obviously, Gillars lost her job when the war ended. After Germany was defeated in May 1945, Gillars became an anonymous figure among the half-million Germans either leaving Berlin or seeking food and shelter from the occupying Allied forces. By December of that year, she was nearly starved and almost frozen and spent three weeks in an American hospital.

Afterward, she was placed in an internment camp, but she was granted amnesty in 1946 and moved to the French Zone in Berlin. Eventually, she was recognized and arrested by the U.S. army. She was transported to the United States and, on August 21, 1948, was jailed in Washington, D.C. She was charged with ten counts of treason—though it was eventually reduced to eight to speed up the trial—by a federal grand jury.

Placed on Trial

Gillars' trial began on January 25, 1949, in a district court in Washington, D.C., with Judge Edward M. Curran presiding.

In stating its case, the prosecution, led by John M. Kelley, Jr., alleged that Gillars had signed an oath of allegiance to Nazi Germany after she was hired by Radio Berlin. Kelly also presented witnesses who testified that Gillars had posed as a worker for the International Red Cross in order to obtain recorded messages from American soldiers that she could use in her propaganda broadcasts. Jurors also heard testimony from American soldiers who Gillars tried to coerce into taking part in her broadcasts. They also listened to tapes of Gillars' radio show.

Gillars' defense team, headed by James J. Laughlin, argued that her broadcasts, however reprehensible, did not amount to treason. "Things have come to a pretty pass if a person cannot make an anti-Semitic speech without being charged with treason," he reportedly told the court, Dale P. Harper recounted in World War II magazine.

Further, the defense tried to convince the jury that Gillars, in essence, was not responsible for her actions. They argued that she was easily led by Koischwitz, who exercised a strong emotional power over her. To help with this strategy, Gillars took the stand and testified that she had felt that Koischwitz was her "man of destiny." In a dramatic highpoint of the trial, she broke down and cried when she learned her former lover and mentor had died. Observers called these emotional displays her greatest performance.

Found Guilty

The trial lasted six weeks and ended on March 8, 1949. The jury, made up of seven men and five women, only found her guilty of one count of treason, and that count involved the broadcast of the "Vision of Invasion" radio play.

Though it was only one count, it was enough for Judge Curran to impose a harsh sentence on Gillars. On March 26, in addition to being fined $10,000, she was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison, eligible for parole after 10 years. In essence, it could have been worse. Six other World War II radio broadcasters tried for treason had been sentenced to life in prison. The reason Gillars didn't receive a life sentence is that she had not written the "Vision of Invasion" script herself. Authorship was attributed to the late Koischewitz.

Following her sentencing, Gillars was taken to the Federal Women's Reformatory in Alderson, West Virginia. That same year, an appeal on her behalf was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. However, the court upheld the ruling that Gillars did indeed commit treason by taking part in a Nazi propaganda radio show broadcast over American radio lines. In addition, the court indicated that Gillars had no right to avoid U.S. prosecution by remaining in Germany. Treason can be committed by American citizens residing in enemy countries, the court ruled, and Gillars had committed treason by breaking her allegiance as an American national.

Released from Prison

When Gillars became eligible for parole in 1959, she waived the right to seek freedom. It was speculated that she chose to remain in prison rather than face possible public ridicule.

She was finally released on June 10, 1961, after serving 12 years of a possible 30-year sentence. Early release was, no doubt, a result of her good behavior. Nina Kinsella, a reformatory warden, described Gillars as a "cooperative prisoner" in the Charleston Daily Mail and that she was "helpful and had a very good attitude toward our rehabilitation program." It was reported in the local press that Gillars, ever the actress, strode out of prison with a "flourish."

After serving her time, Gillars went to live in a convent in Columbus, Ohio, where she taught Roman Catholic schoolgirls. Later, she went back to Ohio Wesleyan University. She completed her bachelor's degree in speech in 1973. She died in Columbus, at the age of 87, on June 25, 1988.

Periodicals

Charleston Daily Mail, July 10, 1961.

New York Daily News, September 6, 2005.

World War II, November 1995.

Online

"Axis Sally," B-24 Liberator Crew, http://www.liberatorcrew.com/01_Home.htm (December 28, 2005).

"Mildred 'Axis Sally' Gillars," findagrave.com http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=23000&PIgrid=23000&PIcrid=658911&pt=Mildred+'Axis+Sally'+Gillars&ShowCemPhotos=Y& (December 28, 2005).

"Mildred Elizabeth Gillars," Biography Resource Center Online http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 28, 2005).

"Mildred Elizabeth Sisk," Reference.com http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Mildred_Elizabeth_Sisk (December 28, 2005).

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