Mildred Gillars was born in Portland, Maine on November 29, 1900. As she grew up in Ohio, she developed big aspirations for becoming an actress. In pursuit of those hefty dreams, Gillars enrolled in the drama department at Ohio Wesleyan University. But Gillars never completed her degree. She would instead find herself winding down a sordid path that would led to her notoriety as Axis Sally.
After dropping out, Gillars moved to New York City to pursue her acting dreams. Unfortunately, life in the big city didn’t bring her the instant success she had hoped. After bouncing around between various odd jobs, appearing in the vaudeville circuit, and ultimately floundering in the professional theatre business, Gillars packed her bags up yet again.
In 1929, she left America all together. First, she moved to Paris, then Algiers, and eventually made her way to Germany in 1934 to study music. It was there that she would start down the precarious path that led her to commit treason against the United States.
In 1940, Gillars found a job introducing music on the German public radio network Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft. As the Nazis rolled over Europe in their brutal bid for conquest, RRG was ubiquitous. Gillars was finally getting some of that attention she’d always wanted, even as the full outbreak of WWII was looming.
By 1941, the U.S. State Department began advising all American nationals to abandon all German occupied territories. Gillars ignored this advice and resolved to stay in Berlin. By this time, she was engaged to the naturalized German citizen Paul Karlson, who told her he wouldn’t go through with their marriage if she fled.
Not long after Gillars decided to stay for her fiancé, Karlson was deployed to the Eastern Front and killed in action. Soon after, Gillars began an affair with her married radio manager, Max Otto Koischwitz. Koischwitz had a creative mind. In 1942, he cast his lover in a new radio show called Home Sweet Home, Gillars’s once apolitical broadcasts took a turn towards propaganda.
Home Sweet Home was created with the purpose to unsettle American forces stationed in Europe, playing on the soldiers’ homesickness and their fears about life back home. Gillars would speculate about whether or not the women on the homefront were remaining faithful. The goal was to convince American soldiers that their time at war would end with them alone, spurned, and maimed upon their return home.
This wasn’t Gillars’s only show aimed at fostering doubt in the American people. She also starred in the show Midge at the Mike, which consisted of playing popular American music—swing in particular—interspersed with rants that were largely anti-Semitic and verbal attacks filled with a hatred for Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Her other show GI’s Letter-box and Medical Reports was particularly gruesome. This broadcast targeted those on American soil, as Gillars struck worry into the hearts of families as she delivered accounts of soldiers who were captured, wounded, or dead, citing specific information about their grim fates.
It seemed Gillars’s betrayal of her country gave her everything she wanted. She was pulling in a generous paycheck. The comfort of financial security was a strong draw after a childhood spent in Midwestern poverty. Additionally, after so many failures throughout her short-lived stage career, her pleasant voice and mocking propaganda made her a prestigious name in European radio.
Gillars’s despicable persona was known among the soldiers by many names—Berlin Bitch, Berlin Babe, Olga—however, the one that had the most traction was Axis Sally. And before long, she wasn’t the only woman spinning doubt behind the microphone. In an effort to recreate the successful broadcast formula, the German Foreign Office had Italian radio announcer Rita Zucca broadcasting from Rome under the name of Sally. Gillars was, of course, furious that listeners frequently confused the two of them.
Over in Japan, yet more women crooned over radio waves into the ears of American soldiers. This was largely due to Japanese propaganda officials forcing Allied prisoners of war to broadcast anti-American shows.
Most notable of these broadcasters was Iva Toguri, also known as Tokyo Rose. Toguri, along with prisoner of war/producer, Australian Army Major Charles Cousens, did their best to keep their broadcasts satirical, leaning heavily on the propaganda official’s lack of cultural understanding of America. Toguri also used her meager earnings from the show to feed POWs in Tokyo.
After the war, Mildred Gillars would claim that her time on the radio was under similar duress as Toguri’s. She said that, upon hearing about Pearl Harbor in 1941, she broke down in horror and boldly denounced Germany’s Japanese allies. Then, fearing she would find herself in a concentration camp for her indiscretion, she later signed a written oath of allegiance to Germany.
Gillars also claimed that, upon being aggressively approached by her new lover Koischwitz to spin his propaganda, she felt she had no choice. Saying no wasn’t an option in Nazi Germany.
It’s impossible to tell whether her claims were true or desperate grabs to change the public's opinion of her. Regardless, she continued to broadcast propaganda until two days before Germany’s surrender. She was arrested on March 15, 1946 and spent the next two and a half years in an Allied prison camp until her trial. Once convicted on one count of treason, Gillars spent 12 years in prison, followed by parole.
During her stint in prison, Gillars converted to Catholicism. Upon her release in 1961, she went to live at the Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio. There, she became a private tutor to high school students, and, at age 72, finally earned enough credits to complete her degree from Ohio Wesleyan University.
In 1988, Mildred Gillars died of colon cancer, leaving behind a complicated legacy. Her body lays in the St. Joseph’s Cemetery south of Columbus in an unmarked grave.
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Featured photo and additional photos courtesy of Nisha Rathode / Alchetron