On March 15, 1946, 77 years ago last month, Ohioan Mildred Gillars was arrested by the U.S. Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Berlin, Germany. Officers had trailed her for several months after the end of hostilities in World War II, as she was wanted for treason, a charge that could send her to the electric chair.
Gillars did not steal state secrets or reveal information to the enemy. She performed in a play, Vision of Invasion, on May 11, 1944, in the role of a distraught Ohio mother named Evelyn whose dead soldier son came to her in a dream as he perished in an invasion of Europe. Gillars performed the part in a radio studio in Berlin. Her audience numbered in the hundreds of thousands: members of the American military throughout Europe and North Africa and at sea — as well as radios in American homes in the eastern U.S.
Someone else was listening, too — and recording: the Federal Communications Commission in Maryland. The play was intended to break the morale of the Allied military might that the Germans knew was amassing to cross the English Channel. It was theater as psychological warfare.
Mildred Gillars was born in Maine in 1900 and came of age in Ohio, the stepdaughter of an alcoholic dentist who once practiced in Bellevue. Home life was tumultuous.
She graduated high school in 1917 at Conneaut, near the extreme northeastern corner of the state, and attended Ohio Wesleyan University, where she majored in dramatic arts. Gillars, who went by the nickname “Milly,” took roles in plays and earned a reputation as an excellent orator, eccentric, and a bit of a coquette.
Her impetuous nature came into bloom her senior year, when she left Delaware before graduating college to pursue acting in New York City. She landed gigs in stock companies and played traveling vaudeville shows, and worked as a sculptor’s model on the side. But her acting career went flat and she headed to Europe in 1928, with stops in France and Algeria before she landed in Germany in 1934. She taught English at Berlitz School and wrote theater and movie reviews for Variety and the New York Times. Then, in 1940, she took a job with German state radio as “Midge at the Mike.”
The former Buckeye with a silky voice trained in drama was a perfect fit to amplify the Nazi propaganda to American listeners without a heavy German accent. Gillars’ work behind the microphone disparaging FDR, Jews, and the Allies would earn several nicknames: Berlin Betty, Berlin Bitch, Olga, and Axis Sally. The last stuck.
Gillars co-produced two regular radio shows, intended to taunt American servicemen and rattle Americans back home. She visited POW camps and hospitals and interviewed the captives, falsely representing herself as being with the International Red Cross. In GI Letterbox and Medical Reports, Gillars distorted and aired the interviews to make it appear as though the captives were treated well and sympathized with the Nazis. She broadcast names and serial numbers of men killed in combat. Several former POWs would show up at her eventual trial and confirm her seditious and licentious character.
Her daily show Home Sweet Home Hour opened with the sound of a lonesome train whistling in the distance. In a girl-to-girl tone, Gillars would lead off with, “This is Berlin calling the American mothers, wives, and sweethearts. And I would just like to say, girls, when Berlin calls it pays to listen.” To sow seeds of doubt and play on homesickness, Gillars taunted the servicemen in a sultry voice about their unfaithful wives and girlfriends cavorting with boys in convertibles. In between the taunts, she spun big-band records — Glen Miller, Benny Goodman — and brought in live orchestras.
Gillars stayed at it until two days before Germany surrendered in May 1945. She purposely melded into anonymity in a ravaged Berlin, knowing American authorities were after her. Upon her arrest, she was held in a prison camp at Frankfurt until turned over to the FBI in January 1949. A criminal complaint read, “From Dec. 11, 1941, through May 6, 1945, from the German Reich she did unlawfully, willfully and treasonably adhere to the government of the German Reich, an enemy of the United States, and did give to the said enemy aid and comfort.”
She was charged with eight counts of treason. Her trial in Washington, D.C., lasted 102 days and included hours of listening to her broadcasts as well as testimony from former POWs. On March 11, 1949, 74 years ago last month, she was acquitted on seven of those counts, but convicted of the last one: performing in Vision of Invasion.
Gillars’ defense that she swore allegiance to Hitler under duress and that she was merely a paid performer and not a party propagandist did not hold up. She did, however, escape the electric chair and instead was sentenced to 10 to 30 years as a “tier-2 traitor.”
While in prison she converted to Catholicism, and upon her parole in 1961, she came to Columbus and landed paid work as a teacher at Our Lady of Bethlehem convent and its attendant grade school. She eventually returned to Ohio Wesleyan and earned her college degree in speech after a 51-year hiatus.
Noted biographer Richard Lucas wrote that she may have outlived her troubled and seditious past. Mildred Gillars died of cancer — destitute and without heirs — in 1988, and at her passing, her friends and associates were stunned to learn through local and national media coverage that the elderly lady they had known as “Miss Mildred” was the reviled Axis Sally. She lies at rest in an unmarked grave in St. Joseph Cemetery, south of Columbus.
To check out the complete FBI file on Mildred Gillars, click here.