The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

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November 25, 2012

Guilty of treason!

World War II’s Axis Sally attended Conneaut High School

She was a lonely child, precocious, some said; others said she was simply aloof. Two things for certain, she was beautiful — neighbors often remarked on her black curls — and odd, especially by  the standards that existed in Conneaut in 1916. Mildred Gillars, the attractive daughter of a painless dentist, wore bright clothes, enjoyed poetry and was given to daydreaming and dramatics rather than housekeeping and marriage.

“She lived in a world of her own,” noted a former Conneaut High School classmate of Gillars in a 1940s newspaper article.

And what a world it was. It stretched from  Maine to Conneaut, from Paris to Berlin,  from Washington D.C. to the  Alderson, W.Va., federal prison for women.

Mildred Gillars, better known as Axis Sally to GIs on the European front, is Conneaut’s most notorious one-time resident. Born Nov. 29, 1900, in Portland, Maine, to Vincent and Mary (Mae) Sisk, Gillars took the surname of her step-father, Dr. R.B. Gillars, a dentist whom Mary married after her divorce from Mildred’s alcoholic father. The family arrived in Conneaut in November 1916 and lived at 145 Grant Street. By then, the family included a half-sister, Edna Mae (Nieminen).

Gillars’ association with Conneaut was relatively brief. She completed high school in 1918 and headed off to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she studied dramatics. Although she spent less than two years in Conneaut, and it was pure happenchance that her step-father selected the port city in which to practice his craft, the media would come to identify her as “... of Conneaut.”

Mildred’s early adulthood took her on a number of artistic and academic adventures that climaxed in World War II Europe. Author Richard Lucas, in his book “Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany,” does a superb job of tracing Mildred’s life during the 1920s and ’30s to her unenviable position of being a radio performer in the Third Reich’s propaganda machine.

“In Berlin, she finally found rewarding employment – first as a film critic and then as a radio announcer for the Nazi state,” writes Lucas in the epilogue. “Willfully blind to the suffering of Berlin’s Jews and the approaching clouds of war, she chose to remain in Germany. When she experienced success unlike anything she had ever known in America, that good fortune reinforced her belief in the wisdom of her decision to stay. When the war claimed the life of her German fiancé, she descended into an adulterous affair with her radio manager – a naturalized American indicted for treason. His death in 1944 snuffed out her last chance to become a German citizen by marriage.”

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