Hammarskjöld — Whodunit? Not the Guy In the Movie

In 2014, the United Nations voted 130-0 to find out killed Dag Hammarskjöld of Sweden on Sept. 17, 1961, the second secretary-general of their organization. He had gone to the Congo, which had descended into chaos after winning its independence from Belgium. Part of the country has split off into an a separate entity, Katanga, and the entire place had become a flashpoint in the Cold War. The West was determined to keep Soviet hands off the uranium in Katanga. That was the uranium that was used to make the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was an abundance of foreign intrigue in the midst of an abundance of local chaos.

Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed. When rescuers got there, 15 were dead including Hammarskjöld and one man would live for another five days. The survivor said there had been a flash of light and a loud sound before the plane went down.

The UN appointed a three-man panel which issued their report in 2015 and then asked a judge to continue the investigation. They didn’t come to any conclusions but they named the usual suspects in this long-running mystery. They also pointed out to a key impediment to getting to the truth, that some countries have kept their files on the case classified and will not release them. That means primarily the US, the UK, and South Africa.

The usual suspects include Belgians, South Africans, British, and a CIA contract assassin named Roland “Bud” Culligan who surfaced in the mid-70s when the Church Committee was active in the Senate trying to set the record straight on some very dirty activities of the CIA in the bad old days, all of one decade previously.

What the Church Committee did determine was that the first democratically elected leader in the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was terminated by another notorious CIA contract assassin, QJ/WIN. His real name has never been made public but he is believed to be a European. The Americans and Belgians conspired together on this one. It happened in 1960.

Obviously Hammarskjöld was fishing in very trouble waters.

Now a new film entitled “Cold Case Hammarskjöld ” claims that a Belgian pilot (born in Germany), who had flown for the RAF in the WWII, Jan van Risseghem, and who was working for the Katagans, brought down the secretary-general’s plane. Van Risseghem died in 2007.

What evidence do Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Goran Björkdahl have? They say that Pierre Coppens, a long-time friend although younger, told them than Van Risseghem admitted doing it in conversations in bars. He did not specify how much either of them had been drinking at the times. Flight logs show that Van Rissegheim was not flying that day but Brügger and Björkdahl claim the logs were doctored. The logs may have been doctored but they produced no evidence that Van Risseghem’s name was erased on the day in question. At the time the US ambassador in the Congo relayed it could have been Van Risseghem, whom he described as “hampering UN operations.”

Opposed to this is an official report of the Belgian government which places Van Risseghem en route from Paris to Katanga on the night of the crash, which validates the flight logs as written. Here was the official report issued by the UN panel on Van Risseghem in 2015.

“Information provided by the Government of Belgium is to the effect that Hammarskjöld sent a telegram to the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Belgium, Henri Spaak, on 16 September, requesting his Government’s co-operation in putting to an end to Van Risseghem’s criminal acts against the UN and its properties, as well as attacks against civilians.

“The Belgian Government, including the Belgian Secret Service, then conducted an investigation which revealed that Van Risseghem had returned to Belgium . on 8 September, where his entry at the national airport was registered by the immigration authorities. He then left Lindt, Belgium, on 16 September, indicating that he was returning to Katanga … thence departed Belgium by air for Paris, from where he was to continue to Katanga. The investigation concluded that Van Risseghem was in Belgium between 8 and 16 September 1961 and could not have reached the Congo from Belgium in time to have the flown a Fouga or any other aircraft over or around Ndola on the night of 17.”

Ndola is where the crash occurred. Today a direct flight would take about eight hours. But this was 1961. Was there a direct flight from France to the Congo? Highly unlikely. And there is no way it went straight to Katanga. How long was the layover in Paris and other probable stops? The Belgian government did the math and it doesn’t add up to Van Risseghem being able to reach the scene of the crime.

In the course of time the names of two other Belgians, who may have shot down the UN plane, have surfaced, “Beukels” and someone known widely as the “Lone Ranger.” No one has been able to unearth any trace of any Belgians going by those monikers. They two seem to have existed but they can’t be traced back to Belgium.

Then there is the continuing suspicion of South African and UK involvement

In 1997, documents uncovered by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission indicated a conspiracy between the CIA and the British MI5 to remove Hammarskjöld. The action was called “Operation Celeste.” Letters turned up between Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, and someone called “Captain” from SAIMR, a South Africa intelligence agency. Dulles said to Captain: “I want his removal to be handled more efficiently than was Patrice (Lumumba).” Later, Dulles said to Captain: “Your contact with CIA is Dwight. He will be residing at Hotel Leopold II in Elizabethville from now until Nov. 1, 1961. The password is: ‘How is Celeste these days?’ His response should be: ‘She’s recovering nicely apart from the cough.’”

These documents were dismissed airily as examples of a Soviet disinformation campaign and everyone moved on.

The United Nations Association in the UK is today doing a blow-by-blow account of developments in the Hammarskjöld investigation. These are their last three entries on the case all from 2018.

“10 September – Puzzlement over UK and South Africa lack of co-operation.

“3 December – UK and South Africa choose to hinder Hammarskjöld inquiry.

“12 December – British and Swedish journals examine UK and South Africa’s refusal to co-operate.”

Those two countries sure seem to going above and beyond trying to suppress reports from a Soviet disinformation campaign.

We come to Roland “Bud” Culligan, who claimed he had been a contract assassin in the service of the CIA for 25 years and his victims included Hammarskjöld. Lisa Peace has been following his story for years and she testified at the UN inquiry. He died circa 2010.

Culligan had been thrown in jail in 1970 on a charge of alleging passing bad cheques. When the Church Committee began its hearings, he decided to come forward. This was what Peace wrote in an article about Culligan.

Lisa Pease: “In 1976, Roland “Bud” Culligan sought legal assistance. After serving the CIA for 25 years, Culligan was angry. He had performed sensitive operations for the company and felt he deserved better treatment than to be put in jail on a phony bad cheque charge so the agency could ‘protect’ him from foreign intelligence agents. He had been jailed since 1971, and now the agency was disavowing any connection with him. His personal assets had mysteriously vanished, and his wife Sara was being harassed. But Culligan had kept one very important card up his sleeve. He had kept a detailed journal of every assignment he had performed for the CIA. He had dates, names, places. And Culligan was a professional assassin.

“Culligan sought the aid of a lawyer who in turn required some corroborative information. The lawyer asked Culligan to provide explicit details, such as who had recruited him into the CIA, which was his mutual friend Victor Marchetti, (executive assistant to the deputy director of the CIA) and could he describe in detail six executive action (EAs) assignments? Culligan answered each request. One of the executive actions he detailed was his assignment to kill Dag Hammarskjöld.

“Culligan described first in general terms how he would receive assignments:

“‘It is impossible, being here, to recall perfectly all details of past EA’s. Each EA was unique and the execution was left to me and me alone. Holland (identified elsewhere as Lt. Gen. Clay Odom) would call, either by phone or letter memo. At times I would be ‘billed’ by a fake company for a few dollars. The number to call was on the ‘bill.’ I have them all. I studied each man, or was introduced by a mutual friend or acquaintance, to dispel suspicion. I was not always told exactly why a man was subject to being killed. I believed Holland and CIA knew enough about matter to be trusting and I did my work accordingly. By the time I was called in, the man had become a total loss to CIA, or had become involved in actual plotting to overthrow the US government with help from abroad. There were some exceptions.

“‘When an EA was planned, I was given all possible details in memo form, pictures, verbal descriptions, money, tickets, passports, all the time I needed for plan and set up. I and I alone called the final shot or shots.’”

“Culligan matter-of-factly described five other EAs. But when he told of Hammarskjöld, it was out of sequence and in a different tone than the other descriptions.

“‘The EA involving Hammarskjöld was a bad one. I did not want the job. Damn it, I did not want the job. I intercepted DH’s trip at Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Flew from Tripoli to Abidjian to Brazzaville to Ndola, shot the airplane, it crashed, and I flew back, same way.”

“Culligan did not want his information released. He only wanted to use it to pressure the CIA into restoring his funds, clearing his record, and allowing his wife and himself to live in peace. When this effort failed, a friend of Culligan’s pursued the matter by sending Culligan’s information to Florida Attorney General Robert Shevin.

“Shevin was impressed enough by the documentation Culligan provided to forward the material along to Senator Frank Church.”

“Culligan was scheduled to be released from prison in 1977. He wrote the CIA’s general counsel offering to turn in his journal if he was released without any further complications. But once out of jail, Culligan found himself on the run continuously, fearing for his and his wife’s life. A friend continued to write public officials on Culligan’s behalf, saying.

“‘There are forces that operate within our government that most people do not even suspect exist. In the past, these forces have instituted actions that would be repugnant to the American people and the world at large. I have always wanted to see this situation handled quietly and honorably without a lot of publicity. Unfortunately, the agencies, bureaus, and services involved are devoid of honor. This story is extremely close to going public soon and when it does, I fear for the effect upon our country and her position in the world community.’”

“The story never did go public, until now. And this is only a piece of what Culligan had to say. You can’t see all of what he had to say. These files remain restricted at the National Archives, withdrawn by the CIA, unavailable to researchers. Not even the (Church) Review Board could pry forth the tape Culligan made in jail detailing his CIA activities.”

Culligan did not always tell the truth in relating his exploits. He mentioned three names elsewhere to someone else which Peace determined he could not have killed because they did not die together and when they did, it was on dates different from what he gave. But in supplying information on the six victims including Hammarskjöld to his lawyer, which he said Marchetti could confirm, he would not be playing games for whatever reason he was playing games in the other cases.

So whodunit? Unless the filmmakers can get Van Risseghem to the scene of the crime from Paris, and he undoubtedly had to make the same number of hops as Culligan did, and these would have been by prop planes, pinning the assassination of Hammarskjöld on Van Risseghem is an unconscionable act. They are passing fiction off as fact. Someone knows whodunit, as in the British, the South Africans, and the Americans, but none of them are talking to the UN investigation team or anyone else.

About the Author
Dov Ivry is from the Maritimes in Canada, born in Nova Scotia, raised in New Brunswick. He worked as a journalist there for 20 years with a one-year stop at the Gazette in Montreal. He's been hanging out in Israel for 36 years, doing this and that, and managed to produce 66 books.