When Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld‘s Douglas DC-6 airliner SE-BDY went down over Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) back on Sept. 18, 1961, controversy immediately swirled around the cause of the crash.
After a lengthy United Nations investigation, the final conclusion was that the crash was caused by pilot error which directly led to the accidental death of one of the world’s most sincere humanitarians. But not everyone remained convinced.
Some 50 years later, the people and the government of Sweden, home to Hammarskjöld, are asking the UN to reopen the investigation, and give complete disclosure to their fact findings on that fateful night.
But you don’t have to go far to find someone who was deeply imbedded in this controversy and someone with insight that might help solve the case.
As a 19-year-old U.S. Air Force lieutenant, Paul Abram had just graduated from Monterey Army Language School before being shipped off to the island of Crete where he would work as a translator/communicator at an intelligence listening post. Here Abram, an expert in Russian linguistics, would listen to air and ground chatter to try and intercept Russian transmissions in an effort to better understand the codes and secrets of the Russian military.
An Airman second class with the U.S. Air Force at the time, Abram was actually working under the umbrella of the largest intelligence agency in the country - the NSA. Because the NSA is under the Department of Defense, they could easily recruit from within the military and select the most qualified personnel in their field. Abram was one of those who was sent to work for the intelligence gathering agency.
“At the time we were told to say we were in the Air Force and not in the NSA,” Abram said.
While doing his job as a communication interceptor/translator, Abram happened to be monitoring the radio frequency only 3,000 miles away from the crash site in Angola. Abram recalls what he heard that day.
“The NSA for weeks had been feeding us info on Hammarskjöld‘s flight - ground frequency, tail number of the plane, etc. We had a lot to listen for,” Abram said.
On the evening of the crash, using just a single HF radio single side band HAM radio, Abram said he heard voices discussing a plane in that region and according to the expert in linguistics, most of those voices were American.
“I assumed it was a ground station saying we have the plane in site and by the call sign, it was Hammarskjöld‘s plane. Then I heard ‘it’s gone down,’” Abram said shaking his head.
Almost seconds after he heard American voices saying they had spotted the plane, Abram believes to have heard a second voice with an English accent saying ... “Americans have just shot down the plane.”
“The voices we were hearing were all communicating in American English. I detected no accents and no unusual use of the language except for the person saying the ‘Americans have shot down the plane,’ he had a foreign accent,” Abram claims.
Unable to send outgoing transmissions and only on the receiving end, Abram said it was easy to determine what voices were which because he had been listening to Russian transmission for weeks so when English voices were heard, it was a rarity and something he was completely familiar with.
“We had been listening to all chatter in the area for weeks. Much of this we did not recognize,” Abram said convincingly.
Knowing Abram’s connection to the Hammarskjöld incident, Mike Roads, Abram’s long-time friend and editor of Community Alliance Newspaper, informed him of an article in the New York Times London Edition, talking about the Swedish government’s recent demands to reopen the Hammarskjöld investigation.
Intrigued with the story, Abram reached out to the reporter who wrote the story for the Times, Alan Cowell, and passed along a chapter of his recently published book, Trona, Bloddy Trona. In this chapter of Abram describes what he calls an assassination of Hammarskjöld for political and financial gain. Abram describes how the event shaped his opinion and view of the government which had put his life in severe jeopardy just to obtain information from their enemies.
“It wasn’t the fighting or my life that I risked that changed my perspective, but the fact of how far they would go to insure their favors were done around the world,” Abram said.
According to Abram, the Swedish investigative team was part of the first team to investigate the crash and incident. And they got there quick when the crash site was still smoking. Members for the Swedish government, along with Abram, believe the NSA still holds records on what really happened that night and since the Swedish government’s petition to the UN to reopen the file, the UN has reopened the investigation.
“We were monitored every second of everyday and we sent those tapes to NSA, headquarters Fort Meade Maryland and the British GCHQ in London. So both the tape and the logs went off to both of them but the way the NSA talks they have everything.”
On Feb. 10, the 73-year-old Oakhurst resident took a flight to Toronto to share his knowledge of the controversial plane downing for an upcoming National Geographic documentary titled “Mayday.” The full-length documentary deals with unexplained air crashes and will be dedicated entirely to the crash of Hammarskjöld‘s plane which went down Sept. 18, 1961.
The documentary will revolve around the disappearance of Hammarskjöld aircraft, which to this point still remains a mystery surrounded by conspiracy theories including American interference in an effort to supply more munitions to the area and the desire of mining companies like Union Minière to exploit valuable mines in the region.
Abram said he is excited to be able to share with the world what he knows about the famous humanitarian.
“I am very proud and blown away by National Geographic’s offer. I have always respected National Geographic and I have been reading the magazine since I was a child. Apparently they think resolving this issue is as important as I do. Like the Swedish government, National Geographic too wants the NSA recordings to be released,” Abram said.
After hours of verifying Abram was indeed a member for the Air Force and was more than likely working for the NSA during his time in Crete, National Geographic issued the interview request. Abram spent hours verifying his credentials, was asked several questions about the Air Forces association with NSA, and then gave an account of what he heard that fateful night.
“Their excitement over my having things to say was really amazing. Parts of my story that nobody else has,” Abram said with a smile on his face. “I was saying things they had never heard anyone else say. And they were all impressed with the facts.”
During the interview Abram said he felt like it was an interrogation and that he was shrouded much like the interrogations he was familiar with.
“There were three of them and me it was like an interrogation. There were very bright lights on me but not around me. I was looking into darkness everywhere I looked. I couldn’t see the camera, man or the sound man while the interview, Marcko, sat about six-feet away and was shadowed.”
Despite the awkward feeling Abram said it was completely professional and said he was treated with the utmost respect by all members of the crew.
“I was very impressed with their professionalism. They don’t know when the documentary will be completed. Gave an estimated of 4-6 months before filming could be completed and editing could be done before things can be completed and put together.”
Upon his return to the states, Abram has been hit with some good news. The U.N. announced in early March, 2015 they were ordering a review of the crash that killed Hammarskjold and 15 others.
A team of three panelists will be given the opportunity to travel to the crash site, interview witnesses and attempt to acquire documents that have been sealed for more than 50 years.
Those panelists include Mohamed Chande Othman, a Tanzanian jurist, Karryn Macaulay, Australia’s Representative on the COuncil of the UN International Civil Aviation Organization, and Henrik Larsen, a ballistics expert at the National Center of Forenic Services in the Danish National Police.
Abram has since been contacted by a member of the Swedish government in hopes of sharing some details of the events that unfolded that night.
It is still unknown what will come of the crash and if a new investigation will lead to any new accusations or facts, but for Abram he continues to speak about the tragedy that was the death of Hammarskjold in the hopes of one day getting justice for one of the world’s greatest humanitarians.
“By participating in this TV program and the UN investigation, if anything is desired I believe it is for the NSA and the British equivalent to release their recording and findings,” Abram said.