By the time the United States entered World War II in 1941, radios were common household items and radio was ubiquitous entertainment. Understanding the psychological power of radio, governments at war pumped propaganda at their own citizens and soldiers, as well as those of the enemy, through stations broadcast locally and internationally.
The US military understood the need for troop entertainment on the frontlines to maintain morale. The military provided soldiers with radios and broadcast programs of news and music tailored for Allied troops on warships and in the trenches. The Axis tried to harness radio as a weapon, waging a campaign of disinformation and psychological torment on special English-language stations. They soon discovered that the voice of a woman held a special sway. And so was born the radio propaganda siren.
The main mission of the radio propaganda siren was to cozy up to the lonely, homesick solider, shake his confidence, and convince him to give up the fight. She relied on an arsenal of entertainment, sex appeal, sympathy, and cruelty to get into the heads of servicemen and sap them of bravado. She lured them with home-grown grooves, often better than what they were getting from friendly stations. She appealed to their desires by crooning suggestively and blowing kisses over the airwaves.
She jabbed at their hearts, claiming that their girls back home were being stolen away by the 4-Fs—men passed over by the Selective Service. She swung at their spirits with reports of American defeats and swiped at morale with news-headline evidence of waning support for the war. Hoping they’d duck in fear, she would call out servicemen by name and rank, identify units, give locations, and predict their own and the enemy’s attacks.
Listen to an excerpt of Axis Sally
That any of them did much damage is now considered doubtful. Nonetheless, they captured imaginations and made celebrities of themselves. The All-Stars of this league of psychological pugilists are Axis Sally, Tokyo Rose, Seoul City Sue, and Hanoi Hannah. Let’s line these ladies up and see what kind of propaganda prowess each one was packing.
The Nazi Golden Girl
The original bad bitch of the radio was Axis Sally. During World War II, she was an icon, both on the front lines and back home. Invisible in reality, she was a stone cold fox of the collective imagination. GIs grafted the visage and physique of a pin-up girl onto the disembodied voice that dripped honey from their radios.
American newspapers ran a photograph of a burlesque-figured statue that the soldiers at Anzio beachhead in Italy had “rescued” from German bombs. They’d stuck a helmet on their new mascot and named her “Axis Sally.”
In 1945, the American press widely ran a photograph of a corset-clad Shelley Mitchell, the “shapely” young actress who was chosen to play Sally in the 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe, even though only her voice actually appears in the movie. Axis Sally was beloved, lusted after, and despised. Soldiers reportedly said they’d love to sock her on the chin and then make love to her.
Once the war was over, the authorities rounded up two Axis Sallies. The nickname applied to at least two American women. The first apprehended was 33-year-old Rita Zucca, daughter of a New York restaurateur. She had been sent to Florence at 16 to study opera, but never made it as an opera signer. When WWII broke out, she went to work for German-controlled propaganda radio in Rome, calling herself “Sally” on the air. After her discovery in Turin, the American press derided this “Axis Sally” as ugly, cross-eyed, and sallow-skinned. She’d become an Italian citizen in 1941, so she was never tried for treason in the U.S. She did get a four-year sentence from an Italian tribunal for conspiring with the enemy.
Two years later, a second American was arrested in Germany and brought back to the US to stand trial for treason. This one, Mildred Gillars, was also known as “Olga,” “Berlin Bessie,” and “The Bitch of Berlin.” She called herself “Midge.” Shortwave radios in the United States picked up programs like Midge at the Mike that were aimed at the wives and mothers of GIs.
In Europe, soldiers tuned in to a program called Home Sweet Home that featured a live orchestra playing swing and jazz. Her broadcasts, while feigning loyalty to her home country, blamed Roosevelt for the war and contained some of the nastiest anti-Semitism heard anywhere.
Maybe she was just a girl chasing a dream. The comely blonde Midwesterner had failed at becoming an actress in the United States and moved to France and then Germany in search of her fortune. Shortly before the war broke out, she got her big break when she was asked to audition for work as a radio announcer at the state-controlled Reich Radio studios in Berlin. She was hired right away to give station identifications and introduce records and musical performances.
Radio turned out to be her calling. Behind the microphone, she was comfortable, light-hearted, and jokey. Her clear American English and sultry, melodious voice were just what Reich Radio’s “USA Zone” needed. Her star rose quickly, as did her privilege within the Nazi regime. She was given her own programs, allowed to write her own scripts, given access to forbidden foreign media, and allowed travel privileges undreamt-of by other foreign nationals.
Despite her protest at trial, history suggests that by the end of the war she was a full Nazi convert. In the days between the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, she’d signed an oath of loyalty to Germany. (It’s possible she did so under duress.) Gillars’ trial captivated the country, partially because of her fascinating personal history. She was convicted, and served 12 years of her 10 to 30 year sentence, after which she drifted into a quiet life as a nun and kindergarten music teacher.
Femme Fatale of the Orient
Over in the Pacific Theater, Axis Sally had her Asian counterpart in the form of Tokyo Rose. Rose remains the diva of radio propaganda boogey-women. No other was more dreaded. Legend says that she first appeared on December 11, 1941, right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her accent-less English slithered across the airwaves: “Where is the United States Fleet? I’ll tell you where, boys. It’s lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.” The memory of her chilly taunt stood neck hairs on end and flared the hearts of American servicemen. The thing is, nothing of the sort ever happened.
Nothing’s quite as scary as the monsters of our imaginations, and that’s mainly what Tokyo Rose was. She was fabled as a true Siren, luring American sailors with music from home, and then driving them to suicide.
Stories abounded of servicemen who’d heard her sultry voice over shortwave radio and lost their will to fight. American newspapers routinely mentioned her in reports of the lives of sailors, generally reassuring readers that Rose was nothing more than an amusement. Some claimed she even boosted morale. Later government reports, however, lamented the psychological blow caused by rumors of Rose’s omniscience.
Back in the US, the specter of Rose flexed her muscles as a force of guilt. A propaganda film in support of war bonds features the purring voice of Rose reading off American newspaper headlines. Striking war industry workers. Demands for consumer goods. Resistance to rationing. “Does this sound like a people that want war?” she asks, her voice oozing with sympathy. As the soldiers listen around the ship’s radio, sadness and doubt creep into their faces. The soldiers then climb into the Higgins boat headed for battle ashore, and the eyes of a young sailor turn up to implore the camera. “That stuff Rose was saying. Those headlines. Could there be anything in that?” he asks. A real gut punch.
Tokyo Rose was a cultural phenomenon, a product of collective imagination. She represented fetishized Asian femininity and embodied American culture’s image of Japanese treachery, duplicity, and non-human ability to see and know everything. Despite numerous claims by servicemen to have heard her, the Federal Broadcast Intelligence Service, having monitored all English-language radio broadcasts out of Japan, insisted that there were never any broadcasts similar to the rumors of Tokyo Rose.
The American woman Iva Toguri managed to receive the heap of undue credit for Tokyo Rose’s work. Toguri, calling herself “Orphan Annie,” was the voice of a program called “The Zero Hour,” an English-language program aimed at American soldiers. After the war she was convicted of treason and imprisoned. As she was later able to prove, she was a loyal American patriot who’d been forced to do the broadcasts. Anyway, her program was actually nothing like the legendary Tokyo Rose’s. She was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977.
The Sad Imitation of Seoul
US troops returned to war in Asia in 1950, this time battling Communist forces in the Korean War. Rumors of Tokyo Rose’s menace must have reached the ears of the North Koreans, as they made their own attempt to tingle the spines of the American GIs fighting on the side of the South.
Listen to an excerpt of Seoul City Sue
The woman’s name was Ann Wallace Suh, an American ex-missionary married to a Korean newsman. “Seoul City Sue” read scripts of Korean propaganda, following the same formula as that of Axis Sally and the mostly apocryphal Tokyo Rose. The boys quickly coined her moniker, lifted from the current radio hit “Sioux City Sue,” and she earned her place as a character in the pop culture of modern war. She appears in an episode of M*A*S*H, and there was even a song about her:
“Seoul city Sue, Seoul city Sue
Your hair is black and your eyes are too
I’d swap my honey-cart for you
Seoul City Sue, Seoul City Sue
No one smells of kimchee
Like my sweet Seoul City Sue”
Sadly, Sue was but a shadow of the glory of Tokyo Rose. In a blistering review from a war correspondent named HD Quigg, her sex appeal was compared to that of a well-boiled vegetable. She did not seem to have any American records to play. The US Army reported that her delivery was dry and monotonous, and that the reaction of the GIs was “generally one of disgust and boredom”. In 1950, less than a year after Sue’s broadcasts began, Seoul fell to American forces, and the least-convincing wraith in history disappeared.
Hannah’s Got the Hits
The Vietnam War was the first to have a rock n’ roll soundtrack. When US marines invaded Vietnam in 1965, the North Vietnamese Army quickly provided American GIs with a female disc jockey through the Voice of Vietnam. The English-language radio service had been running for ten years, since the fall of Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. Hannah recorded a half-hour show that ran several times a day. Her broadcasts included rock n’ roll records, war news, reports of opposition to the war back home, and lists of dead and captured American GIs. Her silky-smooth voice and rock-n-roll jams made her a hit with soldiers. She got help from anti-war Americans, who provided her with records and recorded messages for the program. The troops tuned in mainly for entertainment, but also because they distrusted the Armed Services Radio and wanted information they knew the US government wouldn’t give them. For example, black soldiers listened with interest to her reports of military intervention in the 1967 riots in Detroit.
Listen to an excerpt of Hanoi Hannah
The voice of “Hanoi Hannah” belonged to the Vietnamese woman who called herself “Thu Houng,” which meant “autumn fragrance.” Unlike her predecessors, she was not American. She’d grown up in Vietnam under French colonialism as the daughter of a prominent glass manufacturer. She loved American films, especially Gone with the Wind, which she watched five times. The films inspired her to learn English, and her parents provided her with a tutor. Her clear command of American English landed her the job at Voice of Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, Thu Houng continued her career, first in radio, then television. In later interviews she vowed no hard feelings towards the United States, hoping she’d one day get to visit the far away land she’d spent so many years talking about.
Whatever their success in damaging morale, the monikers of these women live on in American culture as synonyms for treason and feminine duplicity.
Cook, Bernard A. Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present.
Frand, Lisa Tendrich, ed. An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields
Close, Frederick P. Tokyo Rose/An American Patriot.
Lucas, Richard. Axis Sally: The Voice of Nazi Germany
Hochfelder, David and Ann Pfau. “Her Voice a Bullet: Imaginary Propaganda and the Legendary Broadcasters of WWII,” Sound in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Susan Strasser and David Suisman, eds.
Lembke, Jerry. Hanoi Jane: War, Sex, and Fantasies of Betrayal
Doherty, Matin A. Nazi Wireless Propaganda: Lord Haw Haw and British Public Opinion in the Second World War
Tucker, Spencer C. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, The: A Political Social, and Military History.
“‘Axis Sally’ Gets Jail Term in Italy. Woman Who Renounced U.S. and Broadcast for Nazis Will Serve 4 Years.” The New York Times Book of World War II 1939-1945: The Coverage from the Battlefield to the Homefront.
Lamb, David. “‘Hanoi Hannah’ Fondly Remembers Her Role,” LA Times April 4, 1998. http://articles.latimes.com/1998/apr/04/news/mn-35911
Shenon, Philip. “Ho Chi Minh City Journal; Hanoi Hannah Looks Back, With Few Regrets,” New York Times November 26 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/26/world/ho-chi-minh-city-journal-hanoi-hannah-looks-back-with-few-regrets.html
North, Don. “The Search for Hanoi Hannah.” http://www.psywarrior.com/hannah.html