The U.S.-born voice of the Nazis

WAY BACK WHEN

September 30, 2006|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN REPORTER

The death this week of Toguri D'Aquino, who was better known as Tokyo Rose, was the last of the infamous World War II enemy radio propagandists. She was 90.

Axis Sally, her sultry-voiced European counterpart who broadcast for Radio Berlin during the war years, was actually Maine-born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk.

Born in Portland and raised in New York City and Ohio, she later took the name of Mildred Gillars after her mother remarried.

Gillars had planned to be an actress and studied drama at Ohio Wesleyan University. After dropping out of college in the late 1920s, she traveled to Europe and then returned to New York, where she worked as a bit player in musical comedies, stock companies and vaudeville.

In the early 1930s, while studying at Hunter College, Gillars fell in love with Max Otto Koischwitz, her professor, who had been born in Germany and was a naturalized American citizen. He later renounced his citizenship and returned to Germany.

In 1935, Gillars took a job in Berlin teaching English at the Berlitz School and then accepted a position as a radio announcer and actress for Radio Berlin, where Koischwitz was an official with the Nazi Radio Service.

"This was a job more to her liking, and she stayed with it until the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945," wrote Dale P. Harper in 1995 in World War II magazine.

"Gillars' propaganda program was known as Home Sweet Home and usually aired sometime between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. daily. Although she referred to herself as `Midge at the Mike,' GIs dubbed her Axis Sally," he wrote.

Beginning on Dec. 11, 1941, and continuing through the end of the Third Reich in early May 1945, powerful radio transmitters made it possible for listeners in Europe, North Africa and the U.S. to hear Gillars' particularly cruel broadcasts, in which she urged American servicemen to surrender and issued anti-Semitic diatribes against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

American flight crews on early-morning bombing runs deep into the heart of Germany would tune into Radio Berlin -- until observing radio silence once over occupied territory -- to listen to Axis Sally's broadcasts, which she mixed with recordings of melancholy love songs and American big-band music.

"Good morning, Yankees. This is Axis Sally with the tunes you like to hear, and I welcome you from Radio Berlin. I note that the 461st is en route this morning to Linz, where you will receive a warm welcome," Gillars said in one broadcast.

"By the way, Sgt. Robert Smith, you remember Bill Jones, the guy with the flashy convertible who always had an eye for your wife, Annabelle. Well, they have been seen together frequently over the past few months, and last week, he moved in with her. Let's take a break here and listen to some Glenn Miller," she said.

She made playing on the emotions of servicemen a standard feature of her program.

"Hi, fellows," she'd say. "I'm afraid you're yearning plenty for someone else. But I just wonder if she isn't running around with the 4-Fs back home."

Gillars employed more insidious methods when she visited prisoner-of-war camps under the guise of an International Red Cross worker while gathering names, serial numbers and hometowns of wounded and interned servicemen, which she later broadcast.

Less than a month before D-Day, Gillars starred in a radio play, Vision of Invasion, as an American mother dreaming of her son perishing on a burning ship crossing the English Channel during the invasion of France.

The intent of the broadcast was to create doubt about the success of such an undertaking, which would certainly result in an enormous amount of casualties.

Sound effects such as moaning and dying soldiers were interlaced with booming and terrifying gunfire as a voiceover by an announcer said: "The D of D-Day stands for doom ... disaster ... death ... defeat ... Dunkerque or Dieppe."

With the collapse of Germany, Gillars lived on the run while seeking food, shelter and medical treatment from the Allies. She was captured in 1946 and was returned two years later to Washington.

Charged with 10 counts of treason, Gillars went on trial in 1949 in Washington.

Key evidence presented at Gillars' trial was her broadcasts, which had been monitored and recorded by the Federal Communications Commission listening post in Silver Hill, Prince George's County.

Ever the actress, when on the witness stand, Gillars said she was forced to make those broadcasts because she had been under the influence of her lover, Koischwitz.

Her defense lawyer, James J. Laughlin, argued that his client wasn't guilty of treason.

"Things have come to a pretty pass if a person cannot make an anti-Semitic speech without being charged with treason," he told World War II magazine.

"Being against President Roosevelt could not be treason. There are two schools of thought about President Roosevelt. One holds he was a patriot and a martyr. The other holds that he was the greatest rogue in all history, the greatest fraud and the greatest impostor who ever lived."

"She did it for the love of a man. She denied vehemently she wanted to hurt her native land," reported The Sun.

After a six-week trial, the jury found her guilty on count No. 10 for her role in Vision of Invasion.

Judge Edward M. Curran sentenced Gillars to 10 to 30 years in prison with a $10,000 fine. She was sent to the Women's Reformatory in Alderson, W.Va., and was eligible for parole in 1959. Gillar rejected parole, remaining in prison for two more years, until applying for parole, which was granted in 1961.

After her release from prison, she returned to Columbus, Ohio, where she "lived quietly teaching music, French and German," at a parochial school, reported The Sun at her death in 1988. She was 87.

Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose fared far better than England's William Joyce -- known as Lord Haw-Haw -- who made similar pro-Nazi broadcasts. He was arrested in 1945, tried for treason, and was hanged the next year.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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