1949: “Axis Sally” Convicted of Treason

On March 10, 1949, a jury found American-born Nazi propagandist Mildred E. Gillars, the radio broadcaster known as “Axis Sally,” guilty of treason.

“Axis Sally” Sentenced to 10-30 Years in Prison

American Mildred Elizabeth Gillars had moved to Germany in the 1930s and found a job at Radio Berlin in 1940. During World War II, she broadcast pro-Nazi propaganda designed to sow dissent in America and to demoralize Allied troops, earning the nickname “Axis Sally.”

She was arrested in 1948 and taken back to the United States to face treason charges. While on trial, she claimed that she had only agreed to do the broadcasts out of love for her husband, German foreign service officer Max Otto Koischwitz.

She blamed the U.S. Embassy in Berlin for taking away her passport in 1941, which she said forced her into a position where she had to sign a German oath of allegiance. She also apparently tried to gain sympathy by painting a picture of herself as a woman who struggled through life in the United States.

Gillars’ trial was of great interest to the American public. The New York Times described her life and love affair with Koischwitz as having “soap-opera quality.” Gillars herself was described during her trial as “a theatrical figure in tight-fitting black dresses, long silver hair and a deep tan. She had scarlet lips and nails.”

Gillars was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison. Upon hearing the verdict, she remarked, “I wish those who judge me would be willing to risk their lives for America as I did.”

Sources in this Story

Biography: Mildred E. Gillars (1900–88)

Born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk, in Portland, Maine, Gillars tried to become an actress after dropping out of Ohio Wesleyan University, but failed to gain any serious roles. She was arrested in Philadelphia for faking a suicide attempt for publicity.

She spent time in France, North Africa and Germany, where she first worked as an English teacher for Berlitz before being hired by Radio Berlin as a radio personality in 1940. Richard Lucas reports in World War II magazine that she was pressured into broadcasting propaganda after she denounced the Japanese for their attack on Pearl Harbor, an outburst that could have led to her arrest.

Her radio program, called “Home Sweet Home,” could be heard in many countries, including the United States. She usually began the show by saying, “Hello, gang. Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home. There’s no getting the Germans down.”

On air she blamed the war and the problems in America on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Britain and Jewish people. She encouraged soldiers to stop fighting in World War II, which she described as “Britain’s mess.”

She would insinuate that the soldiers’ wives and girlfriends back home were probably not waiting around for them, and she would find the names of injured or captured soldiers and broadcast her thoughts about their potential fates. Though she called herself “Midge,” the soldiers called her the “Berlin Bitch, “ the “Berlin Babe,” “Olga” and “Axis Sally.”

On May 11, 1944, less than a month before the Allied invasion of Normandy, she transmitted her most notorious show, a play called “Vision of Invasion” that was intended to frighten Allied soldiers.

“The play had a realistic quality to it, sound effects simulating the moans and cries of the wounded as they were raked with gunfire from the beaches,” writes Dale P. Harper in World War II magazine. “Over the battle action sound effects, an announcer’s voice intoned, ‘The D of D-Day stands for doom…disaster…death…defeat…Dunkerque or Dieppe.’”

She continued broadcasting until the dying days of the Third Reich. She spent the next three years in hiding before she was found in Berlin and returned to the United States for trial.

She served 12 years in prison. On her release, Gillars became a kindergarten music teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She died June 25, 1988 of colon cancer.

Excerpts from a Berlin wartime broadcast from May 18, 1943, expose Gillars’ anti-British, anti-Semitic, anti-Roosevelt opinions. Click on the radio tower icons to listen.

“Tokyo Rose” and the Other “Axis Sally”

Tokyo Rose

Japanese-American Iva Toguri d’Aquino became known to troops in the Pacific as “Toyko Rose” as she broadcast anti-American propaganda on the Japanese radio show “Zero Hour.”

She was captured after the war, but the Department of Justice (DOJ) initially chose not to charge her. It was only after she applied for a U.S. passport—and incited the ire of the press—that the DOJ decided to try her for treason. She was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Italy’s “Axis Sally”

Gillars wasn’t the only “Axis Sally.” New Yorker Rita Zucca broadcast propaganda from Italy on the show “Jerry’s Front” from 1943 to 1945. She used the name “Sally,” which angered Gillars, who threatened to quit if Zucca did not change her name.

Zucca was arrested soon after the war, but because she had renounced her U.S. citizenship she could not be tried in America. An Italian military tribunal convicted her of treason and she spent nine months in an Italian jail before being released.