Who Was Axis Sally?
In 1942 during WWII, a woman’s silky voice came over the German radio airwaves, speaking English, mesmerizing American GIs. She spoke of how foolish American soldiers were to leave their sweethearts and wives alone to fight a losing battle in a far away land. She pointed out their loved ones were being unfaithful to them while they were away. There were men at home enjoying their wives while the soldiers were sacrificing their lives. She noted that while they were going without good food and a comfortable home, a man back in the United States was enjoying those things. Day after day this broadcast with varying approaches continued. If it was a family holiday, like Christmas or Thanksgiving, the broadcasts were particularly focused on how much fun another man was having with their wives and children. Some homesick young men may have believed what they heard, but most soldiers were alerted that it was propaganda, used by the enemy to break down their morale.
Who was this woman who did such a dastardly deed?
Mildred Gillars, born in Portland, Maine on November 29, 1900, had show business aspirations. For this, she took drama lessons, appeared in Vaudeville, toured with stock companies and appeared in Vaudeville. Sometime in 1934 she moved to Dresden, Germany to study music. For a time she taught English at the Berlitz School of Languages in Berlin. In 1940 she obtained work as an announcer with the German State Radio.
She had several shows including The Home Sweet Home Hour from December 1942 to 1945, which concentrated on the infidelity of the women left at home while the men were away. Another show called Midge at the Mike played popular American songs in between telling soldiers their side was losing the war, attacking President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s character, that he had abandoned them to die in a foreign land, and that it was all the fault of the Jews.
Another Gillars show called GIs Letter Box and Medical Reports was aimed at the home audience, where she used reports of wounded and captured U.S. forces to instill fear in the families. In 1943 she toured POW camps interviewing American prisoners. She and her program director would then edit those interviews to make them seem sympathetic to the Nazis. But her most audacious and heart rending broadcast was when she played the part of an American mother who dreamed of her son’s horrendous death on a ship in the English channel during an attempted invasion of occupied areas of Europe. And finally, her last broadcast, given on May 6, 1945, was just two days before Germany surrendered.
She was arrested on March 14, 1946 and indicted on ten counts of treason on September 10, 1948. Only eight of those charges were taken to trial. After much delay and negotiations between lawyers, it was decided she would be charged with only one charge, the last broadcast in which she had pretended to be the mother of a soldier, who had dreamed of her son’s death. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison and released on June 10, 1961.
But There’s More To The Story
Axis Sally was actually a collective name for several women. The two most well known of these were Mildred Elizabeth Gillars and Rita Zucca, who were often mistaken for each other. Gillars resented that Zucca also used the Axis Sally tag, but there was little she could do about it. They were both United States citizens, but Zucca renounced her citizenship before beginning to broadcast for the government of Benito Mussolini in Rome, Italy. Mildred Gillars was an American citizen when employed by Hitler’s Third Reich as a broadcaster. Their treatment after the war would be different because of the citizenship status of each.
Rita Zucca, an Italian-American, daughter of a successful New York restaurant owner, was educated in a convent in Florence, Italy. She then worked for a time in the family business. After returning to Italy in 1938, she took a job as a typist and renounced her American citizenship. In 1943 the Italian National Radio network located in Rome hired Zucca to broadcast propaganda. Her signature opening line was “Hello Suckers!” Her theme song was “Between The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea.”
Zucca often used German intelligence reports in her broadcasts such as, “the wonderful boys of the 504th Parachute Regiment” that “Col. Willis Mitchell’s playboys the 61st Troop Carrier Group are going to carry you to certain death. We know where and when you are jumping and you will be wiped out,” on July 8th, 1943, the night before the Allied invasion of Sicily. As the Allied forces advanced, she retreated into Milan with the Germans and continued her broadcasts until her final one on April 25th, 1945. She was arrested on June 5th, 1945 and charged with treason, a charge that would be discarded because she was not an American citizen when she did her radio broadcasts. Finally, she was charged by an Italian military tribunal with collaboration with an enemy. She was found guilty and sentenced to 4 and 1/2 years but was released after 9 months served. She was barred from ever returning to the United States.
Gillars died of colon cancer at Grant Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio on June 25, 1988.
Zucca died in 1998 in Italy.
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