This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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RADIO BERLIN CALLING
by Norman Cox © 2009
(From Radio Recall, February 2009)
Hurry up and wait. Hurry up and wait. In Europe, U.S. World War II troops are fighting two enemies: alternately the Germans and then boredom. Radio is a favorite way to fill the slow times. One of the GI favorites is a sugar-tongued sweetie broadcasting shows aimed at them from Radio Berlin. The troops soon nickname her Axis Sally. Who is she and why is she so popular with the GIs? For answers, follow this typical scenario of an Air Force corporal. (Excerpted from Saturday Evening Post, 1-15-44)
Twirling the dials of his radio our bored corporal is hoping to hear just one hour of good old U.S. Jazz. First he gets the doleful chimes of Big Ben followed by a booming, impressive voice, “This is London Calling in the North African service of the BBC.” A few teasing bars of swing and then a fadeout.
Then the announcer comes on with “Good evening, forces. This is your variety hour playing all your requests. Here’s one from three airmen in Gibraltar who want to hear Glen Miller’s ‘Little Brown Jug’. We couldn’t find that record boys so here’s one we hope you will like as well. ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’ as played by the Aberdeen Bagpipe Band“.
Enough ! ! Our corporal, twisting the dial, next hears a terribly British voice explaining something about the price of potatoes in Wales. Another spin of the dial and he hears a noisy dramatization of the heroics of a young Russian girl who strangled 75 Nazis barehanded while fighting on the Kharkov front. Assured that the Russian girl can easily take care of herself, he dials over to the next station where he runs into the results of the cricket match in Northwest Wembley. Mercifully the station signs off with the familiar music of “God Save the King”.
Then, almost ready to give up, he runs into an old friend, Axis Sally. Now, for him, Sally is a different proposition. She’s the sweetheart of the Second Allied Expeditionary Forces and she plays nothing but swing. In far off Berlin, Minister Goebbels thinks that Sally is rapidly undermining the morale of the American doughboy but our corporal knows that just the opposite is happening. He gets a bang out of her. All the U.S. troops love her.
(End of edited excerpt)
Sally, who calls herself “Midge at the Mike” while broadcasting for Radio Berlin, never identifies herself by name. She is Mildred Gillars and was born in Portland, Maine on Thanksgiving Day, November 29, 1900. While attending Wesleyan University in Ohio, taking speech and drama classes, she was described as an attractive girl with black hair and piercing eyes who longed for the spotlight of a stage career. Dropping out of college she headed for New York’s Greenwich Village. There, playing small parts in various. stock companies and vaudeville, she was mostly unnoticed.
Mildred next turned up in Camden, New Jersey. As a “Mrs. Barbara Eliot” she ran an ad in the local papers pleading for her “husband” to come home as she was soon to become a mother. After the ads were placed, reporters contacted her and she told them that she was a common law wife. Then, a few days later, she staged an elaborate suicide attempt on a Philadelphia bridge.
The police at the scene quickly determined that she was neither married nor pregnant and that her elaborate story had been made up to publicize a lurid movie entitled “Unwelcome Children.” Next, trying her luck in Europe, she worked as an artist’s model in France and as an English translator in Berlin. In Berlin she joined a friend, former Hunter College professor, Dr. Max Otto Koischwitz from New York, who was broadcasting for the Nazis under the nickname of Mr. OK. He persuaded her to take a job in Dr. Goebbels’ American section of Radio Berlin.
With her knowledge of the U.S. idiom as her primary asset, she soon found her niche. Nightly, starting in December 1941, she began beaming her “Home Sweet Home” shows to the American troops in North Africa, Europe and to the U.S.. Listeners quickly bestowed upon her, her own nickname of “Axis Sally.”
The main purpose of her show was to make the troops homesick. In between the popular records she inserted lots of references to the girls and wives left behind. “Hi gang. I was just wondering if your girl is sort of running round with all those 4 Fs at home? Throw down those little old guns and toddle off home.”
These simple attempts to demoralize the GIs were a small price to pay for all the good jazz she sent their way. When she featured the sentimental German hit ‘Lili Marlene’, the GIs picked it up and adopted it as their own. Record copies were becoming available from overrun German positions. The amount of people in the U.S., listening to the same ’Home Sweet Home’ short wave shows had to be almost zero. However there was one very interested group. Government monitors in Silver Hills, Maryland were recording all of her broadcasts.
G.I. USES RAZOR AS RADIO (WITH THE FIFTH ARMY ON THE ANZIO BEACHHEAD) April 27, 1944 (AP)
For foxhole entertainment, Pvt. Eldon Phelps of Enid, Okla., has invented a razor blade radio. Fellow infantrymen say it works. Both Rome and Naples broadcasts are reported picked up on the instrument, which Private Phelps said can be constructed thus: “Stick a razor blade in a piece of dry wood. Attach a coil to the wood and connect it to a ground. Attach an aerial to the blade. Move a cat’s whisker antenna coil against the flat surface of the blade to tune the station. It’s the same principle as the old crystal set.”
Mildred and Koischwitz had become lovers and together, posing as International Red Cross workers, they made tours of the U.S. prisoner of war camps. There, passing out cigarettes and good cheer, they interviewed and recorded American prisoners. The soldiers were told the recorded interviews would be broadcast home to friends and family by short wave Trying to make the folks at home feel better, the prisoners often gave statements of good care and well being. Later these interviews would be altered and rebroadcast to the U.S. by Koischwitz and Mildred to give the impression that the soldiers agreed with inserted Nazi propaganda.
The war was turning against Germany and with the certainty of the invasion of mainland Europe, Radio Berlin prepared an elaborately produced dramatic radio program entitled “Vision of Invasion”. It was aired on May 11, 1944, turning out to be about three weeks before the Allies invaded France. One year later, in May of 1945, with the war winding down, she aired her last show. From then on, in Berlin, she was constantly on the move from cellar to cellar, living on meager handouts and black market food, hiding under assumed names.
When the U.S. Counterintelligence agents picked her up for questioning in March of 1946, her looks, along with her money were gone and she was reduced to smoking scrounged cigarette butts. Once the highest paid person in Dr. Goebbels’ American section of Radio Berlin, she was carrying one mark, 15 pfennig. She was released after being held for nine months and then re-arrested when a case had been built up against her.
In January, 1949 she was in the dismal Washington, DC District Court on trial for treason. Finally Mildred was to get her first U.S. starring role. She entered the courtroom in a sleek black dress, her deep tan accented by a blue scarf and bright red nails and lipstick. Her awareness of being in the spotlight obvious. to all, she arranged herself next to her attorney, leaned forward, whispered in his ear, while canting her head at a coquettish angle. During the jury selection she posed with her chin cupped in her hands and winked at courtroom spectators. Her trips up and down the aisle at recess were accompanied by considerable side to side hip movement.
On the fourth day of her trial, stacks of radio recordings made by the FCC were introduced. It was mostly tough going for the jury of five women and seven men for the next couple of days. They did brighten up during the musical portions of the records. One of the records played was the radio drama “Vision of Invasion” which aired about three weeks before D-Day. The stated purpose of the show was to demoralize the waiting troops with grisly forecasts of staggering losses if the Allies dared to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
Mildred had the lead, playing the part of an “Ohio Mother” who dreamed that she had been talking to her son in England, finding out later that he had drowned in a fiery, sinking ship during the invasion. The show opened with the sounds of heavy battle action. An announcer intoned “The D of D-Day stands for doom, disaster, death, defeat and Dunkirk.” The drama unfolded with more battle sounds, cries of anguish and dismay, yelling and chaos. The somber effect of the chilling radio broadcast was evident on the faces of the people in the courtroom years after its first airing.
When Mildred took the stand her testimony at first was accompanied by broad theatrical gestures; shaking her long hair, fingers pressed to her forehead and smiling at the judge. As the trial wore on the seriousness of her position became more apparent to her and her testimony now included tears that finally did not appear to be play acting.
In March the New York Times headlined “Axis Sally Found Guilty Of Treason“. The jury acquitted her of seven of eight counts but found her guilty on one count of treason involving the “Vision of Invasion” broadcast. The judge asked her if she had anything to say before sentencing. She said that “Vision of Invasion” was written by (her lover) Professor Max Otto Koischwitz whom she described during the trail as “My destiny”.
She contended that Professor Koischwitz was an American citizen when he wrote “Vision of Invasion” but had been exonerated for lack of evidence in 1947. So, she said, she too should be exonerated. The judge cut her off saying that her lawyer had already presented the same information during the trial.
At the time anyone found guilty of treason could be sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison or given a death sentence. She was sentenced to serve ten to 30 years in prison and was fined $10,000.00. Pale and unflinching, she took the sentence with no apparent emotion. Her half sister in court, said “I don’t think Ethyl Barrymore could have received the verdict any better.”
As she walked from the court house through a barrage of flash bulbs, one of her escorting marshals remarked “It looks like you are going to have your picture taken again, Sally.” “I shouldn’t be surprised” she replied. Thrusting her chin up, she waved to newsmen and photographers saying, as she entered the prison van, “Goodbye. . . . Goodbye”.
On July 10, 1961 Miss Gillars was paroled from the Federal Women’s Reformatory at Alderson, W. Va. after serving twelve years. After her release she taught at a Catholic school in Ohio. In later years she obtained a degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. She died at 87 in June of 1988.
Newsweek: 02/07/49, Time: 02/07/49, 03/07/49
New York Times: 12/26/46, 01/28/49, 02/01/49, 02/10/49, 02/16/49, 02/25/49, 03/11/49, 03/26/49, 04/08/61, 07/11/61
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Cox is a retired banker who grew up in the SF Bay area during the 30's, 40's and 50's with Father Barber, Candy Matson, Johnny Modero, Sam Spade, Bud Foster, Don Sherwood and Bert Solitaire as his local radio favorites. All listened to on the family Philco with its magic eye tuner. Author welcomes correspondence at <LSE776@aol.com>