Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germanyby Richard Lucas
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One of the most notorious Americans of the twentieth century was a failed Broadway actress turned radio announcer named Mildred Gillars (1900–1988), better known to American GIs as “Axis Sally.” Despite the richness of her life story, there has never been a full-length biography of the ambitious, star-struck Ohio girl who evolved into a reviled disseminator of Nazi propaganda.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, Mildred had been living in Germany for five years. Hoping to marry, she chose to remain in the Nazi-run state even as the last Americans departed for home. In 1940, she was hired by the German overseas radio, where she evolved from a simple disc jockey and announcer to a master propagandist. Under the tutelage of her married lover, Max Otto Koischwitz, Gillars became the personification of Nazi propaganda to the American GI.
Spicing her broadcasts with music, Mildred used her soothing voice to taunt Allied troops about the supposed infidelities of their wives and girlfriends back home, as well as the horrible deaths they were likely to meet on the battlefield. Supported by German military intelligence, she was able to convey personal greetings to individual US units, creating an eerie foreboding among troops who realized the Germans knew who and where they were.
After broadcasting for Berlin up to the very end of the war, Gillars tried but failed to pose as a refugee, but was captured by US authorities. Her 1949 trial for treason captured the attention and raw emotion of a nation fresh from the horrors of the Second World War. Gillars’s twelve-year imprisonment and life on parole, including a stay in a convent, is a remarkable story of a woman who attempts to rebuild her life in the country she betrayed.
Written by Richard Lucas, a freelance writer and lifelong shortwave radio enthusiast, Axis Sally: The American Voice of Nazi Germany is the first thoroughly documented look at this mythologized figure of World War II.
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The American Voice of Nazi Germany
By Richard Lucas
Casemate PublishingCopyright © 2010 Richard Lucas
All rights reserved.
An Unwelcome Child
On a cold morning in October 1928 a slim, attractive woman walked into the Camden, New Jersey offices of the The Evening Courier newspaper. Teary-eyed, she approached the front desk and asked to place an advertisement for that day's edition. She identified herself as Mrs. Barbara Elliott and told the clerk that she was searching for her missing husband Charles, whom she had married only six weeks before. Her husband had left their New York apartment and never returned. A few days after his departure, Barbara discovered that she was expecting a child. A friend told her that he had spotted Charles in Camden, and the distraught mother-to-be had come to New Jersey in search of the man who had abandoned her.
The desk clerk knew a good human interest story when he heard one and called upstairs for a reporter to take down the woman's story. The Evening Courier regularly printed melodramatic stories about lucky Ziegfeld Follies dancers marrying wealthy heirs, lonely and lovesick women driven to suicide, and couples finding love against all odds. Because Camden is only a few miles across the river from Philadelphia, some of the stories printed in the local paper found their way to the wire services and the big New York newspapers. In a weary voice, Barbara Elliott told the newsman her sad story in detail.
It all began when a girlfriend invited her on a double date where she was introduced to a "dark, slender, ascetic-looking" man of thirty—a linguist and world traveler who regaled her with tales of his visits to Morocco, Singapore and Baghdad. Barbara was enthralled with the handsome, urbane stranger named Charles Elliott. The two couples danced the night away at a roadhouse in Greenwich, Connecticut. There, Barbara and Charles held hands under the table and were swept away with happiness.
Within twenty-four hours, the two lovers agreed to an "ultramodern" marriage, with the understanding that if either party grew tired of the other—the marriage would end. Barbara explained their pact:
"It's the bonds that kill love. People must be free, untrammeled. Love must not be forced or shackled.... It was a mad thing to do, but to us it seemed so right. We were so much in love. And we agreed never to hold each other back. I would continue my work as interior decorator; he, his as a tour director and linguist. 'When love dies we will part,' we told each other. And so by leaving love free we hoped to keep it always."
Two weeks later, it all fell apart. Charles promised to meet his wife for dinner but never returned. Heartache turned to panic when Barbara found out that she was pregnant: "I was frantic when I discovered a few days later that I would become a mother. Then a friend said he had seen Charles in Camden, at least he thought it was he and I came down here to search for him." That evening, pressed in between articles about the political battle between Herbert Hoover and Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York for the White House, The Evening Courier told the shocking tale and launched a citywide search for the missing husband:
MISSING MATE SOUGHT BY COMPANIONATE BRIDE
Six Weeks of Marriage Was Unmarred by Rites or Contracts
CHILD NOW COMING WITH FATHER GONE
Not for Self, But for Baby She Says, She Hunts "Pal" Husband
Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Charles Elliott, last heard of in Camden, will please inform him that he is about to become a father. His wife, Barbara, who is now registered at the Hotel Walt Whitman, pleads with him to forget the circumstances surrounding their marriage and the immediate separation, and believes that for the sake of all concerned reconciliation should be effected.
The next morning Barbara telephoned the Courier reporter to thank him for his sympathy and kindness. In a voice choked with emotion and portent, she told him that the money for her hotel bill had been left on the nightstand. "They will understand," she said and abruptly hung up. Barbara then called the Hotel Walt Whitman and told the front desk clerk to go upstairs to her room, where he would find something. He did—a suicide note written on hotel stationery:
To Whom It May Concern,
It is not humanly possible to continue any longer this bitter agony of bringing into this poor, deluded world another unwelcome child. The few who may give my sorry act any thought at all will probably think only in a conventional way, saying "What a weak thing she must have been." Who will ever have the perception to realize that I am taking this step because I have an intelligence and soul that are sensitized to the nth degree?
It is the greatest maternal tenderness I can bestow upon my dear child that I end my life with his that he may not be numbered among the hosts of unwelcome children.
Published in full on the front page of the Courier, the suicide note thrust Barbara Elliott into the spotlight. (See Appendix I for its full text.) Camden police were placed on alert and county detectives were told to be on the lookout for the deserted bride. A photograph of Barbara Elliott sitting on a wooden chair wearing a full-length fur coat and a hat popular among the flappers of the time was emblazoned on page one under the banner "Suicide." Although the Courier noted that the authorities considered "the possibility that Mrs. Elliott's unusual actions might be in the nature of a publicity stunt for a motion picture, play or book, etc.," the police decided to err on the side of caution. Dubbed the "companionate bride," her story spread to the New York newspapers and the wire services. The International Wire Service and United Press sent representatives to Camden to cover the impending tragedy.
At this point, the hard-bitten city journalists stepped in to verify Barbara Elliott's story. The New York World attempted to confirm Barbara's stated address but had no success. Other New York papers could not confirm details of the story. Nevertheless, the dramatic story took on a life of its own, transcending mere details, and the "companionate" bride's command of the front page was not yet over.
At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of October 19, Officer William Basier of the Camden police department was patrolling the great bridge that spans the Delaware River, connecting Camden with Philadelphia. In the morning mist, the young policeman saw the figure of a woman on the bridge's walkway. Within seconds, Basier saw her remove her coat and dangle her foot over the side rail. The bridge was a popular site for suicides, and the patrolman snapped into action.
By then the woman was straddling the rail and Basier grabbed her as she swung 135 feet above the icy river. Pulling her back from the rail, he soon realized that the disturbed girl did not want to be saved. Lashing out at her rescuer, she fought him off vigorously. Several other officers arrived to assist Basier and they soon had control of the flailing woman who screamed, "This is a free country and one ought to be able to do as one wants ... If I am not allowed to jump off this bridge, I'll jump off another!"
The officers carried the distraught woman into the bridge's security office. The policemen asked if she was Mrs. Barbara Elliott, the "companionate bride" of the newspaper. She denied it, but after further questioning finally admitted that she was the woman for whom all Camden had been searching. She moaned, "Oh, why didn't you let me carry out my plans?"
Barbara was taken to police headquarters for her own protection where she was met by an inquisitive press. Greeted by popping flashbulbs and peppered with questions, she and her background came under increasing scrutiny. She said she was an interior decorator by profession, and that she had attended the Art Students League and Ohio Wesleyan College. She had lived in a number of cities and claimed to have a number of "influential" relatives in Philadelphia and New York whom she didn't wish to bother with her troubles.
Soon the pressure of the press inquisition in the court hallway began to affect her demeanor. She alternately sobbed and laughed hysterically when confronted with the speculation that her story was nothing more than a publicity stunt. When a Courier reporter asked her to comment on the allegation, Barbara was indignant: "You have no right to suggest such a thing to me. I am on the level. I admit I am in great trouble and I tried to take the easiest way out but I guess I've caused trouble for everyone."
Ushered into police court, Barbara beseeched the judge for mercy: "It doesn't much matter what happens. I didn't know I was committing an offense. I thought I could do as I wanted to. You have any promise that I won't take my life here—I won't say it won't happen again however."
Crying, she told the judge that she had no money and nothing to live for, and insisted, "I refuse to bring an unwanted child into this world, and I was taking the easy way out." It was Friday morning and the judge decided to put her in protective custody over the weekend. She would remain in jail until she was composed enough to guarantee that there would be no more suicide attempts.
That night, the story of Barbara Elliott was again front-page news. As she sat in a holding cell in the Camden jail, the photograph of heroic Officer William Basier appeared on the Courier' s front page:
HE SPOILED HER SUICIDE
Deserted Bride, Foiled in Leap into Delaware
Cop Grabs Barbara Elliott As
She Climbs Over Span Rail
Sobs Out Her Story in Public Hearing
Begs to Die and Insists That She'll Leap Off Some Other Bridge
As the story of the seemingly well-bred woman with the cultivated accent spread on the news wires, the press demanded answers about her background and sought verification of her story. That same morning, a wire service reporter received word from his New York headquarters that she should be asked if she worked for a "moving picture producer known to be ready to release a film on companionate marriage." Mrs. Elliott was unmoved, replying that she had never heard of the company. She stood her ground, "What I have told you and other newspapermen and the police here in Camden is the truth." Despite the allegations, Barbara received several proposals from chivalrous men willing to marry the distressed mother-to-be.
On Saturday morning, Camden police investigators became even more suspicious of Barbara Elliott's story when a young man walked into the offices of the Courier claiming that he was Charles Elliott. Questioned about his whirlwind courtship and marriage, the police soon discovered that his version of events did not correspond with Barbara's. Accompanied by several newspapermen eager to witness the ecstatic reunion of two lovers, Captain John Golden, the Chief of Detectives, took Charles down to the detention area. The police captain quietly waited to gauge Barbara Elliott's response to the obvious fraud. The Evening Courier described what happened next:
There, "Barbara Elliott" staged her last bit of realistic acting; she flung herself at "the long lost husband" the moment he loomed up in the corridor. She staged a faint almost equal in intensity to Sarah Bernhardt's.
"Pretty good, little girl," commented Captain Golden and newspapermen.
Revived, without the slightest need for first aid methods, she and her "companionate husband" were told plainly how their story had failed of verification in nearly every check-up.
"Charles" quickly confessed that his real identity was John Ramsey, a New York writer. After some hesitation, "Barbara" admitted that she was a struggling New York actress named Mildred Gillars. Ramsey and Gillars had been college friends, both members of the dramatic arts fraternity Theta Alpha Phi at Ohio Wesleyan University. The now-impoverished pair had been offered $75 each to impersonate an abandoned mother-to-be and her caddish husband by a motion picture producer. The whole incident was a hoax designed to promote a new silent film entitled Unwelcome Children.
The phony couple was brought before the court of Judge Bernard Bertman who immediately sentenced them to three months in jail for contempt of court. Dozens of supporters gathered in court to observe the conclusion of the story. Some were "so touched that they had come to court prepared to offer her a home if the judge let her off."
With a dramatic flourish, Mildred Gillars tearfully apologized to the judge. The out-of-work actress said she had taken the job in financial desperation and told the court that neither she nor Ramsey had been paid the $75 promised to them by the movie company. Judge Bertram suspended their sentences, placing blame squarely on the film's producers and pronouncing that "the movie men who are back of this ought to be before me." The relieved 27-year-old rushed to the bench and grabbed the judge exclaiming, "You sweet thing!" Police restrained the defendant from kissing the surprised judge. Ordered by the judge to leave town, Mildred Gillars and John Ramsey did not have even the car fare to get home. Several newspaper reporters pooled their funds to finance their return trip. One of the contributing reporters told the hoaxers, "You did your best to put it over. It was worth $12.75—car fare back to New York."
After this close brush with the law, Mildred Gillars could not possibly know that one day, far from America, she would assume a name and perform a role far more infamous than that of the "deserted bride"—it would be a name synonymous with treachery and anti-Semitism: Axis Sally.
As Mildred Gillars sat with the producers of Unwelcome Children to plan her portrayal of Mrs. Barbara Elliott, she built its foundation on memories of her own unhappy childhood and her desperate need for acceptance and acclaim. It was that same reckless search for fame and notoriety that led a star-struck Ohio teenager to wander far from home, abandon family and friends, and ultimately cast her lot with a murderous and tyrannical regime.
I know so bitterly the awful loneliness of a life without parental love. I have visualized completely the arrival of this baby of ours. I have seen myself watching it through the years. I know the agony I would suffer every time I would catch that wistful gleam in his eye when he saw another child happy in his father's love.
Mildred Gillars, 1928
* * *
She was born Mildred Elizabeth Sisk, the daughter of Vincent Sisk, a Canadian, and Mary (Mae) Hewitson, a 23-year-old seamstress from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Born on November 29, 1900 in Portland, Maine, Mildred was raised with the fierce pride of an Irish nationalist and the anti-British prejudice that came with it.
A strikingly lovely girl with porcelain white skin, dark eyes and raven hair, her early childhood was marred by her father's alcoholism. Vincent and Mae were married on February 21, 1900, slightly more than nine months before their daughter's birth, so it is likely that Mae's pregnancy was the deciding factor in the pair's union.
From the beginning of the marriage Sisk drank heavily, and his recreational pursuits included smoking opium. Mae was a strict Episcopalian from a middleclass Canadian home (her father was a magistrate in Fredericton) and her husband's drinking and drug abuse were unbearable. Sisk was the tough son of a stonemason from rural Bathurst, New Brunswick—a mining and shipbuilding community on the province's northeastern coast. The strapping blacksmith could deliver a punishing beating, and his wife was regularly the victim of his drunken rages.
After almost seven years of misery, Mae took six-year-old Mildred away from their Portland home. It would be the last time Mildred would ever see her natural father. Although Mae would return briefly three weeks later, the marriage was doomed and she would file for divorce in April 1907. Accusing Vincent Sisk of "cruel and abusive treatment," the court awarded full custody of the child to Mae on October 31, 1907. While the divorce decree did not mention abuse directed at the child, the terrifying atmosphere in the home must have had a serious effect on the little girl, who was witnessing the effects of alcoholism and drug abuse firsthand in her most formative years. It would also cement a bond between mother and daughter that would be difficult to break.
Throughout Mildred's childhood, Mae was close-mouthed about her ex-husband. As an adult, Mildred claimed to know "nothing about my father except his name." Mae was likely shamed by her status as a divorced woman with a child, and never discussed the dark stain on her past. That she was willing to endure the gossip and stigma that followed a divorced woman in those days is testament to the severity of the abuse. She instilled that same strength and self-reliance in her daughter. Years later, Mildred's stepsister Edna Mae marveled that her mother was "successful in keeping her feeling of a marriage failure from both of us, since neither of us knew this man Sisk was alive ..." In the face of such an embarrassing family secret, Mae went on to raise Mildred as though her biological father never existed.
Excerpted from Axis Sally by Richard Lucas. Copyright © 2010 Richard Lucas. Excerpted by permission of Casemate Publishing.
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Meet the Author
Richard Lucas is a graduate of Hamilton College, Clinton, NY and received a Masters degree in Political Science at Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY. An avid amateur radio enthusiast since the 1970s, he became fascinated with the radio medium as a tool of persuasion and propaganda. He has written articles for World War II magazine. Axis Sally The American Voice of Nazi Germany is his first book, published by Casemate Publishing of Havertown, PA.Richard Lucas lives in Short Hills, New Jersey with his wife, Sachi, and two sons, Jordan and Taylor.
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Cant even bringmyself to read sample. May she rot
She sighed and continued to clean her pistol.
*Cleans off his pistol*
Horrible, horrible woman who should have been execute
Ya uhm who said anything about battle? Oh ya, field medic. For me its more like "go into battle AT ALL and you will surely die" Thx for the warning tho. *winks then looks for Hunter to rescue him