Mildred Gillars paid a price for the fame she craved so desperately. She became one of the most hated women in America for her radio propaganda broadcasts on behalf of Germany during World War II.
Gillars’ childhood started out inauspiciously. She was born in Portland, Maine, in 1900 to Vincent Sisk, a railroad man, and his wife Mae. Both had Canadian roots. But after seven tumultuous years together -- Vincent suffered from alcoholism -- her parents divorced.
Through friends, Mae met her second husband, Robert Gillars, a dentist. Robert applied for a license to practice in Maine, but couldn't get one. The family then moved through the Midwest and Canada, returning to Maine when Mildred turned 16. Finally they left for good for Ohio.
By the time she reached adulthood, she had taken on a stepfather's name -- becoming Mildred Gillars -- and developed a powerful appetite for fame. She got it.
Mildred Gillars, Actress
Mildred Gillars briefly attended Ohio Wesleyan College, but there the acting bug bit her. So she made her way to New York. In the city, she won small roles in stage plays and in vaudeville shows, but could not get a big break.
In 1928, in a bid to ignite her career, she pulled a stunt. Pretending to be a woman abandoned by her child's father, she placed an ad in the Camden, N.J., newspaper looking for him. The ad and the news coverage it generated eventually blew up when it was exposed as a publicity plot for a movie about fatherless children.
The fame did little to help Mildred's career, and in 1929 she traveled to France and on to Algiers, popular destinations for young Americans looking for adventure. She made her way by modeling and teaching English.
In 1933, Mae -- whose second husband had turned out to be as big an alcoholic as the first -- wrote and told Mildred she would be visiting Hungary, and she invited her daughter to join her.
For the next six years, the two lived in Hungary and later Berlin, Mildred always close to the theater and filmmaking scene. She earned her living, though, as a translator, English teacher and personal assistant.
War Breaks Out
By 1939, however, Hitler's rule in Germany was growing increasingly autocratic and openly anti-Semitic. Meanwhile, Germany's war machine was gearing up for all-out conflict. The U.S. State Department was urging U.S. citizens to return home.
Mae returned to the states, but she could not persuade Mildred to join her. In 1940, the war underway, Mildred took a job with the German state radio division, Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, which was then broadcasting on AM frequencies and short-wave.
At Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, Mildred was reunited with her former college professor at Hunter College, Otto Koischwitz. Mildred had several affairs with married men during her life, and she and Koischwitz had had an affair in her New York days. They rekindled their romance in Germany.
With his position as a leader in Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft, Koischwitz encouraged Mildred to use her talents on behalf of the Third Reich, as a propaganda broadcaster.
In 1943, Mildred took to the airwaves as "Midge at the mic," broadcasting English-language shows aimed at Americans. U.S. soldiers nicknamed her "Axis Sally," a moniker that would stick with her forever.
For close to three years, Mildred Gillars broadcast shows aimed at undermining American morale. Sometimes she would make direct appeals to soldiers to give up the fight. Other times she would suggest they were risking life and limb while the "4-Fs" back home were taking their jobs and their women. Most famously, she would visit U.S. soldiers in hospitals and POW camps to record them giving greetings to their families back home, assuring family and friends of their safety. She would intersperse their recordings with subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at U.S. military prospects.
The updates from the soldiers were "listener bait," and the real message was what Mildred Gillars wrapped around those updates about U.S. servicemen. Some examples of her messaging:
“Mothers and dads in America, you've no idea what hell your boys have been through. And to thank, they've got Franklin D. Roosevelt who promised you American mothers that no American boy would be sacrificed on foreign battlefields. I only wish you could get a little glimpse of the conflict going on in Normandy. Well, Roosevelt asked you to do it for him and you did. Wait until some of these human wrecks get back home once again. You won't be able to recognize some of them. Believe me, I've seen them. Well, this is Midge signing off . . . Good night, America!”
“It's a disgrace to the American public that they don't wake up to the fact of what Franklin D. Roosevelt is doing to the gentiles or your country and my country . . . This is a Jewish war and I refuse to participate in it and insist on fighting against it.”
At the end of the war, Mildred tried to melt back into German society and struggled, with the rest of the country, to move past the trauma of the war. But she knew the U.S. military was still looking for her. In 1946, Mildred Gillars was placed under arrest.
In 1949, Mildred was brought to trial in the United States. Armed with transcripts of her broadcasts and eyewitness accounts of soldiers she had interviewed, prosecutors initially charged her with 10 counts of aiding the enemy.
Mildred fought back. She was forced to sign a loyalty oath to Germany out of fear of imprisonment or even death, she said. She claimed Otto Koischwitz held such influence over her that she was virtually hypnotized and helpless to resist when doing her broadcasts.
In the end, the jury found Mildred guilty on just one count of treason – involving a radio play that dramatized an American invasion of Germany, resulting in huge losses. The purpose was to undermine U.S. confidence in the D-Day mission.
Mildred appealed, claiming freedom of speech protected her, but the appeals court ruled against her. The result was a 10- to 30-year prison sentence for Axis Sally.
Mildred Gillars would spend 13 years in prison in West Virginia before she won parole. She passed up her first chance at parole, apparently unprepared to face the public. When she was finally released in 1961, camera crews awaited her at the prison gate, asking for her thoughts and plans as she made ready to leave with her half-sister.
For once, however, the sultry voice that floated over the airwaves for countless hours during the war had been quieted.
“After 15 years, you don’t feel like having much to say,” she politely explained.
Mildred Gillars would return to Ohio, earn her degree from Ohio Wesleyan and spend some time teaching before finally shutting herself away in a convent, where she died in 1988.
This story was updated in 2019.