This Day In History: September 24

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On September 24, 1948, Mildred Gillars—the notorious American citizen known as “Axis Sally,” who had been living in Germany and broadcasting Nazi radio propaganda during World War II—pleads not guilty to eight counts of treason. Her lawyer, James J. Laughlin, tells the judge that he wants to call President Harry S. Truman as a witness, but he doesn’t say why.

When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and began the war, Gillars, an Ohio native, had been living in Germany for five years, and she chose to remain even after the last Americans departed the Nazi-run country. In 1940, the German state radio network hired Gillars, who started as a disc jockey and became a master propagandist for the Nazis while her lover, Max Otto Koischwitz, protected her. Gillars became the personification of Nazi propaganda to American soldiers, who called her Axis Sally.

Gillars was known for having a soothing voice in her broadcasts but saying cruel and menacing things, like taunting American GIs about whether their wives and girlfriends were cheating on them back at home, and about the horrible deaths the men were likely to meet on the battlefield. She also made hateful comments about President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jewish people and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“A defeat for Germany would mean a defeat for America,” Gillars said in one of her broadcasts. “I say damn Roosevelt and Churchill, and all of their Jews who have made this war possible. I, as an American girl, will stay over here on this side of the fence because it’s the right side. Girls, watch out! Don’t forget the beautiful things we have at home which are now in danger.”

Gillars’ mysterious identity initially was unknown, so many nicknames emerged, including Berlin Babe, Berlin Bitch and Sally, based on a self-description. The nickname Sally morphed into Axis Sally, since Hitler’s Germany, Italy and Japan were called the Axis powers.

After the fall of Berlin and the end of the war, Gillars pretended to be a refugee but was captured by American authorities. At her trial, Gillars stood by everything she did. She insisted she was a paid performer and not a traitor, and that she remained a patriotic American. Yet on March 10, 1949, a jury convicted Gillars on only one of eight counts of treason and sentenced her to 10 to 30 years in prison. In January of 1961, Gillars, who had converted to Catholicism while in prison, was paroled. She went to live at a convent in Columbus, Ohio, and taught music to novice nuns there.

In her later years, Gillars—who died on June 25, 1988 at age 87—tried to redeem her reputation with the help of her lawyer. A 2021 movie called “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally,” starring Meadow Williams as Gillars, recounts her story.