Mildred “Midge” Gillars was born in Portland, Maine, took drama lessons in New York City, appeared in vaudeville, worked as an artist’s model in Paris and a dressmaker’s assistant in Algiers, and taught English at the Berlitz School in Berlin before—motivated by love and fear—she became the notorious “Axis Sally,” one of the Nazis’ leading radio propagandists.
The most prominent of the World War II broadcasters—and the most remembered today—were Gillars, William Joyce, who became known as “Lord Haw-Haw” and targeted the United Kingdom with Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda, and Iva Ikuko Toguri, a first-generation Japanese American who was nicknamed “Tokyo Rose” by U.S. servicemen in the Pacific.
These three took up the cause of enemy propaganda for very different reasons, but those reasons were typical of the forces that motivated all these “turncoat” broadcasters.
“Vision of Invasion”: Axis Sally’s Radio Shows
Gillars began her broadcasts after the war broke out and she was trapped in Nazi Germany. While teaching English at the Berlitz School in Berlin, she became engaged to a German citizen, Paul Karlson, who was later killed on the Eastern Front. She chose to stay in Germany even after the United States in 1941 urged all Americans to leave. On December 7, 1941, Gillars was working as a radio announcer when word of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor arrived. Gillars broke down and denounced the Japanese, a German ally.
“I told them what I thought about Japan,” she later said,” and that the Germans would soon find out about them. The shock was terrific. I lost all discretion.”
Later realizing that her actions could land her in a Nazi concentration camp, she produced a written oath of allegiance to Germany and returned to her work at the radio station. In the beginning, she was a “disk jockey” and took part in chat shows, but eventually her duties expanded until she became the well-known voice of Joseph Goebbels’s Nazi radio propaganda machine. She was christened Axis Sally—as well as Berlin Bitch, Berlin Babe, Olga, and Sally—by GIs who listened to her broadcasts for the music.
Her “Home Sweet Home Hour” radio show ran regularly from December 24, 1942, until 1945. She also was featured on shows called “Midge-at-the-Mike” in 1943 and “GI’s Letter-box” and “Medical Reports” in 1944, shows that were aimed at the U.S. civilian population and attempted to sow fear and worry by using information on wounded and captured American servicemen.
Her most famous broadcast, however, was on May 11, 1944. In that day’s radio play, “Vision of Invasion,” she portrayed a Ohio woman who dreams that her son had died a horrific death during an attempted invasion of occupied Europe.
Collaborating “For Love”
Gillars was arrested in March 1945 after she was traced through a furniture dealer to whom she had sold some of her furniture. She was held at Camp King, Oberursel, with fellow collaborators John Burgman and Donald S. Day until she was conditionally released from custody on December 24, 1946.
She was formally rearrested on January 22, 1947, and was flown to the United States, where she went on trial in August 1948, charged with eight counts of treason. A year after the trial started, she was convicted on only one count, that of making the “Vision of Invasion” broadcast, and was sentenced to 10 to 30 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
At her trial she said she had done it all “for love.”
Gillars, who had converted to Roman Catholicism while imprisoned, took up residence at Our Lady of Bethlehem Convent in Columbus, Ohio, where she taught German and French at St. Joseph Academy after she was paroled in June 1961. She died of colon cancer in Columbus in 1988.
Lord Haw-Haw: The Voluntary Fascist
While Gillars found herself trapped in Germany by the war, William Joyce’s choice to ally himself with Fascist Germany was completely voluntary.
He had been born in 1906 in Brooklyn, New York, to a Protestant mother and an Irish Catholic father who had taken United States citizenship. A few years after his birth, the family returned to Ireland where, Joyce later said, he aided the Black and Tans during the Irish war for independence and became a target of the Irish Republican Army. Following what he claimed to be an assassination attempt against him in 1921 when he was 15, Joyce moved to England where he graduated with honors from London University.
In 1932, he joined the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and became a speaker for the group. A journalist who heard him speak described Joyce as “thin, pale, and intense” and said, “He had not been speaking many minutes before we were electrified by this man … so terrifying in its dynamic force, so vituperative, so vitriolic.”
Shortly after the 1937 elections, Joyce broke with the BUF and formed the more anti-Semitic National Socialist League. Getting a tip that authorities planned to arrest him, Joyce and his wife fled to Germany in August 1939, shortly before war was declared. There he was recruited to do radio broadcasts, which eventually had an estimated six million regular and 18 million occasional listeners in the United Kingdom.
Because of wartime censorship, it was possible for Joyce’s German broadcasts to be more informative than those of the BBC, which accounts for many of his listeners.
Joyce became a naturalized German citizen in 1940. The name “Lord Haw-Haw” was coined by the Daily Express radio critic in 1939 and applied to German journalist Wolf Mittler, but when Joyce became a prominent propaganda broadcaster, the nickname shifted to him.
Hanged For Treason
Trying to make his way to Denmark in the waning days of the war, he was wounded and captured by British troops and taken to England, where he was imprisoned in London’s Old Bailey, charged with three counts of treason. Despite his American birth and his naturalized German citizenship, he was put on trial in England in September 1945 and found guilty on one of the three counts. He was sentenced to death.
“As in life,” he said at the end, “I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union.… I am proud to die for my ideals, and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.”
Joyce, 39 years old, was hanged on January 3, 1946, at Wandsworth Prison. He died unrepentant.
Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino: The Most Famous “Tokyo Rose”
“Tokyo Rose” was a generic name given by Allied forces in the South Pacific to a number of English-speaking women broadcasting Japanese propaganda, the most famous of whom was Iva Ikuko Toguri D’Aquino, an American citizen who was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Japanese immigrants. She attended school in Mexico and Los Angeles and earned a degree in zoology from UCLA.
Whereas Gillars was trapped into her role and Joyce embraced his, Toguri appears to have been innocent of willingly committing treasonable acts. In 1941, she sailed to Japan to visit an ailing relative and was unable to leave that county when war broke out in December. Like many other Japanese Americans stranded there, she was pressured to renounce her United States citizenship but refused to do so.
“A tiger does not change its stripes,” she is reputed to have said.
She was subsequently declared an enemy alien by the United States. In late 1943, Japan began forcing Allied prisoners of war, many of whom had been tortured, into broadcasting radio propaganda. Toguri had previously risked her life smuggling food into a POW camp where several Americans who had made these broadcasts were being held. As a result, she was chosen by them to host portions of a one-hour radio show, “The Zero Hour.”
She accepted the offer with the provision that she would not broadcast anti-American propaganda and was assured the show’s scripts would not have her say anything against the United States.
Toguri hosted a total of 340 broadcasts of “The Zero Hour,” calling herself “Ann” and later “Orphan Annie,” a reference to the popular Little Orphan Annie comic strip and possibly a reference to “orphans”––the nickname given to Australian troops separated from their divisions in battle. (The name “Tokyo Rose” was given to her by Allied servicemen who listened to her broadcasts.) She performed in comedy sketches using American slang and played American music but never participated in any actual newscasts.
She earned 150 yen or about $7.00 per month and is said to have used some of that money to buy food that she then smuggled to Allied POWs.
“Guilty Without Evidence”
After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, she was arrested but released after a year in jail when neither the FBI nor General Douglas MacArthur’s staff found any evidence that she had aided Japanese forces. American and Australian prisoners of war who had written her scripts also publicly claimed she had committed no wrongdoing.
Now pregnant by Felipe D’Aquino, a Portuguese citizen of Japanese-Portuguese descent whom she had married on April 19, 1945, she announced her intent to return the United States to have her child born on American soil. The announcement ignited a firestorm of public protest—orchestrated to some extent by radio host Walter Winchell.
Her baby was born in Japan but died shortly after birth. U.S. military authorities then arrested her a second time and transported her to San Francisco on September 25, 1948, where she was tried for treason. She was fined $10,000 and given a 10-year prison sentence. Her attorney at the time, Wayne Mortimer Collins, a prominent Japanese American rights advocate, denounced the verdict as “guilty without evidence.”
Toguri was sent to the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, West Virginia, where Gillars was also being held. She was paroled in January 1956 after serving six years and two months. She died in Chicago in 2006 without ever seeing her husband again.
In 1976, an investigation by a Chicago Tribune reporter revealed that two witnesses who had given testimony against Toguri had been threatened by the FBI and U.S. occupation police and had lied under oath. The witnesses said they had been told what to say and what not to say just hours before the trial.
On January 19, 1977, President Gerald Ford granted Toguri a full pardon.
The New York Times noted in her obituary, “[Her] broadcasts did nothing to dim American morale. The servicemen enjoyed the recordings of American popular music, and the United States Navy bestowed a satirical citation on Tokyo Rose at war’s end for her entertainment value.”
The Many Other Axis Broadcasters
Although probably the most famous of the World War II broadcasters who filled the airways with Axis propaganda and teased Allied troops with visions of unfaithful wives and girlfriends back home, Gillars, Joyce, and Toguri were not the only ones.
Paul Fredonnel, “the Stuttgart Traitor,” worked on propaganda broadcasts in France promoting the Nazi regime and demoralizing French troops and civilians. Philippe Henriot broadcast propaganda for the Vichy French, while John Amery, a British Fascist, broadcast for the Nazis. Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach, a naturalized American of German origin, Herbert John Burgman, and Donald S. Day all broadcast from Germany. Robert Brest targeted the United States with anti-Semitic remarks and attacks on Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ezra Pound, a well-known American poet, used a weekly Italian radio show to attack the United States and support the Fascists.
The Political Warfare Executive
But the use of radio for propaganda broadcasts was not a solely Axis technique. Britain, for one, retaliated.
That nation’s Political Warfare Executive operated a number of “black” radio stations, as propaganda sites were then labeled. Among their many broadcasts were regular appearances by Peter Seckelmann, who broadcast under the name “Der Chef,” purported to be a Nazi extremist, and accused Adolf Hitler and his henchmen of going soft and focused on alleged corruption and sexual improprieties by Nazi Party members.
The propaganda messages from both sides were often mixed with popular music and other features to hold their audience, but their intent was always the same—to undermine enemy morale, both at home and among fighting men, and to create tensions that would ultimately disrupt the enemy war effort.
Their success has been debated.
This article by Chuck Lyons first appeared in the Warfare History Network on December 12, 2018.
Image: Fascist politician and Nazi propaganda broadcaster William Joyce, known as Lord Haw Haw, lies in an ambulance after his arrest by British officers at Flensburg, Germany, on 29 May 1945. He was shot during the arrest. Imperial War Museum/Bert Hardy.