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.”
Midge at the Mike
Blame it on love, artistic aspirations, bad luck, war or pure treason, the fact of history is that Gillars’ was the woman behind the come-hither voice that encouraged GIs to surrender and folks back home to brace for the inevitability of their sons returning from defeat without a leg or the ability to procreate, if they returned at all.
Her programs, “Midge at the Mike” and “Home Sweet Home,” featured a mix of drama, news, music and ramblings by Midge.
On July 27, 1943, she sent this message to the women of America through her “Midge at the Mike” show. The broadcasts, sent via shortwave, were beamed to the North American continent, where government listening posts made recordings that eventually would send her to prison.
“As you know, as time goes on, I think of you more and more. I can’t seem to get you out of my head, you women in America, waiting for the one you have, waiting and weeping in the secrecy of your own room, thinking of the husband, son or brother who is being sacrificed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, — perishing on the fringes of Europe.
“Perishing, losing their lives. At best, coming home crippled – useless for the rest of their lives. For whom? For Franklin D. Roosevelt and Churchill and their Jewish cohorts.”
Three months later, Midge used her microphone to spread propaganda about the state of life in Germany, where citizens were “getting extra butter rations” and were poised to enjoy “plenty of bread and even more meat” as a result of the “marvelous wheat harvest.”
“Mark my words! I’m living here; I have been living here ever since before the war and I know how beautifully everything is regulated; ... if you need a new pair of shoes, you get a new pair of shoes and you don’t have to swindle about it or tell any silly stories, you simply get anything that you need, but everything is honest…”
“Home Sweet Home” was aired to the GIs. Gillars targeted their homesickness, especially when it came to sweethearts they left behind.
“Well, boys, I guess all you have felt the same about some girl. Well, you’ve parted now, and you may dislike my repeating this to you, but it’s the truth, especially since you boys get all mutilated and do not return in one piece. I think then you’ll have a pretty tough time with your girl. Any girl likes to have her man in one piece, so I think in any case, you’ve got a pretty hard future ahead of you.” (Nov. 26, 1943, broadcast)
Gillars also used her microphone to relay the condition of wounded and captured GIs back to the United States. Her “Medical Reports” program broadcast patient condition and death messages from Nazi hospitals.
“The first town on my list tonight is Greenville, Alabama,” Gillars said in a 1944 report. “I have word for Mr. H.E. Jernigan Sr. about his son, Second Lieutenant Henry E. Jernigan … your son Henry got his left leg broken above the knee. He also is suffering from flesh wounds on the left leg above the knee and has also had a general collapse and considerable loss of blood.”
Her medical reports set the stage for propaganda.
“Well, after all you American parents wanted it, didn’t you? And so day after day your boys have to pile through showers of flak … thousands and thousands of feet up in the air … they’re burned alive in the airplane … or they bail out .. and only break their legs and arms and so on,” she said in the 1944 broadcast.
In 1944 Midge added another show, “Survivors of the Invasion Front,” in which she went to Nazi war camps and interviewed prisoners who had the opportunity to send a message back home.
Thus, while many Americans considered Gillars a traitor of the worst kind, there were parents and wives who were grateful for the “service” she provided.
Tried for treason
Their letters of appreciation were of little interest to the federal grand jury, which indicted Gillars for treason after she was rounded up in March 1946. Maximum penalty was death in the electric chair.
Mildred was returned to the United States to stand trial, an event of intense local interest because of both her Conneaut connections and the residency of her half-sister, Edna Mae Herrick (Nieminen) of Ashtabula.
Herrick, a dance instructor known as “Cha Cha,” stood by her half-sister during the grueling months of pre-trial publicity and the trial itself.
“If she is in trouble, I want to be by her side,” said Herrick in a 1948 newspaper story. Herrick paid dearly for her faithfulness; upon learning that Axis Sally was a blood relative, her employer fired her. Worried about the stress the trial would have upon family finances and the health of Gillars’ aged mother, who was living in Toronto, Herrick wrote to J. Edgar Hoover in January 1947 and requested compassion. As far as Mae Gillars’ health was concerned, Hoover’s assistance was unneeded. She died two months after Herrick sent the letter.
The shame hit the Gillars family hard and most members preferred to avoid the situation. Further, none had the financial resources a protracted stay in Washington, D.C., would require. Nevertheless, Edna Mae packed her bags and, in late August 1948, went to the nation’s capital for the trial of Axis Sally.
“It was a mess,” Edna Mae told Star Beacon reporter Carl E. Feather in a 1995 interview. “But it never entered my mind not to be there for moral support. I don’t think Mildred cared one way or another if I was there. I did it for my mother.”
Gillars was nonchalant. The press reported that Gillars, a “gray-haired, 47-year-old spinster,” told U.S. Commissioner Cyril S. Lawrence that, so far as she knew, she had no relatives in the United States.
The trial got under way in January 1949 and lasted seven weeks. Jurors heard the damning evidence preserved on acetate recordings of her shortwave broadcasts, as well as the testimony of a former member of the German consular staff in Cleveland, Hans Von Richter. He testified that he witnessed Gillars “quite often” at work at the microphones of Nazi Germany’s radio studio. Former prisoners of war whom Gillars had interviewed for her show also testified.
Mildred used the trial as an opportunity to further her dramatic career. She dressed fashionably, puffed on cigarettes and crossed her long, sexy legs for the newsmen’s cameras.
The jury deliberated 17 hours and 20 minutes before delivering its decision: Mildred Gillars was a traitor for broadcasting Nazi propaganda during World War II.
Mildred was sentenced to 30 years in the Alderson, W.Va., federal prison for women. Initially aloof and argumentative, Gillars was assigned to Cottage 23. The trial and long incarceration leading up to it left her bitter and feeling like a martyr. But over time, a transformation took place and Mildred accepted her fate. She became a productive member of the community and eventually turned to God for peace and purpose. In 1960, Mildred Gillars converted to Roman Catholicism and was baptized and confirmed in the church.
She was paroled on Jan. 12, 1961, and released the following summer. The 60-year-old Gillars’ first stop was Ashtabula, where she spent a month with her half-sister, Edna Mae.
Gillars held a press conference of sorts on the front lawn of the sister’s house, which still stands just east of the Trash and Treasures Barn on Route 20. She remained unapologetic about her work during the war, noting that she thought she was doing the right thing.
“After all, I was a professional broadcaster in Germany when the U.S. entered the war. It was my job. Besides, I was very much in love with a German and hoped to marry him,” Gillars said.
Gillars left for a convent in Columbus at the end of her visit. It was the last time she and Edna Mae would see each other.
“That was the last time I saw her, when she went out that door, and that was that,” said Edna Mae Nieminen in the 1995 interview.
Gillars worked as a kindergarten music teacher at the Sisters of the Poor Child Jesus School, dabbled in community theater and settled into a quiet, obscure life far from the microphones of German radio and wire service photographers. She died of colon cancer June 25, 1988, and is buried in Columbus.