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White House Policeman Leslie W. Coffelt

Leslie William Coffelt (August 15, 1910–November 1, 1950) was an officer of the White House Police, now known as the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division, who was killed in the line of duty.

Coffelt was killed by Griselio Torresola during the Truman assassination attempt, in which Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate U.S. President Harry S Truman while he was residing in the Blair House on November 1, 1950. Though mortally wounded by three bullets, Coffelt gunned down Torresola with a single shot to the head.

Contents

Background

Coffelt was born to Will Coffelt and Effie Keller in the Shenandoah Valley town of Oranda, Virginia. As a boy, he was called "Etts", because his younger sister could not pronounce the name "Leslie". His siblings were Harry, Hollis, Norman, and Mildred, called "Midge."

As a boy, Coffelt grew up hunting and handling firearms. Coffelt was the second in his family to graduate from high school, and he was described by those who knew him as an expert sharpshooter. He was a quiet, good-humored man who was well-liked by everyone.

In 1928, Coffelt left Oranda to look for a job in Washington, D.C., and became a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in 1929. He was assigned to Precinct 3, which ran down the length of K Street.

In 1936, he resigned to become a building technician. He met Chessie Elinor Morgan of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, who was training to become a nurse. Coffelt and Morgan were married on October 5, 1937, in Prince George's County, Maryland, and they moved into an apartment in Washington.

In 1941, Coffelt returned to the Metropolitan Police, and in 1942 he requested and was awarded a transfer to the White House Police Force. In 1942, Coffelt was drafted and assigned to B Company, 300th Infantry Regiment, United States Army. Coffelt served less than two years and never made it overseas; the Army gave him a medical discharge. In 1945, he returned to duty with the White House Police Force.

Truman assassination attempt

On November 1, 1950, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, who were angry with the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States, attempted to enter the Blair House and assassinate President Truman. At the time, the White House was under renovation for major structural problems.

Torresola walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side while Collazo engaged Secret Service agents and White House policemen from the east. Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner of the Blair House and fired at Coffelt from close range. Three shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, mortally wounding him. The fourth shot, a near miss, passed through his policeman's tunic.

Torresola shot two other policemen before running out of ammunition, then moved to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. Coffelt staggered out of his guard booth and fired from 31 feet away, hitting Torresola just behind the ear, killing him instantly. Coffelt limped back to the booth, blacked out, and succumbed to his wounds in a hospital four hours later.

If Torresola had gone up the steps and entered the door of the Blair-Lee House, he would have been met by a Secret Service Agent with a Thompson submachine gun. This was the very last line of defense for the President, there being no other immediately available armed personnel besides this agent and officer Coffelt.[citation needed]

A plaque on the Blair House fence commemorates Officer Coffelt's sacrifice.

Aftermath

In a letter to his cousin, Ethel Noland, dated November 17, 1950, President Truman wrote:

I'm sorry I didn’t get to talk to you and (cousin) Nellie at the dinner or after it. But I'm really a prisoner now
Everybody is much more worried and jittery than I am. I've always thought that if I could get my hands on a would-be assassin he'd never try it again. But I guess that’s impossible. The grand guards who were hurt in the attempt on me didn't have a fair chance. The one who was killed was just cold bloodedly murdered before he could do anything. But his assassin did not live but a couple of minutes – one of the S.S. (Secret Service) men put a bullet in one ear and it came out the other. I stuck my head out the upstairs window to see what was going on. One of the guards yelled, "Get back." I did, then dressed and went downstairs. I was the only calm one in the house. You see, I've been shot at by experts and unless your name's on the bullet you needn't be afraid – and that of course you can't find out, so why worry.
The S.S. chief said to me, "Mr. President, don't you know that when there's an Air Raid Alarm you don't run out and look up, you go for cover." I saw the point but it was over then.
Hope it won't happen again. They won't let me go walking or even cross the street on foot. I say 'they' won't, but it causes them so much anguish that I conform – a hard thing for a Truman to do as you know, particularly when he could force them to do as he wants. But I want no more guards killed.

Coffelt's tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery.

Coffelt's wife, Cressie E. Coffelt, was later asked by the President and the Secretary of State to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences and expressions of sorrow from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt responded with a speech absolving the island's people of blame for the acts of Collazo and Torresola.

Oscar Collazo was sentenced to death, although Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The sentence was later commuted to time served by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, granting Collazo his release. Collazo returned to Puerto Rico, where he would die in 1994.

Private Coffelt was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on November 4, 1950 in Section 17, Site 17719-59. His epitaph reads, "White House Policeman: Who Gave His Life in Defense of the President of the United States During an Assassination Attempt at the Blair House, Washington, D.C." To this day, Coffelt is one of only four Secret Service members to take a bullet while defending the President, the others being Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs shot during the Blair House attack of 1950 andTim McCarthy. McCarthy was shot in the abdomen by John Hinckley, Jr during the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt but his injuries were not fatal.

A plaque at the Blair House commemorates Coffelt's sacrifice, heroism, and fidelity to his duty and his country. The day room for the U.S. Secret Service's Uniformed Division at the Blair House is named for Coffelt as well.

References

  • Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr., "American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill Harry Truman - And The Shoot-Out That Stopped It", Simon & Schuster (2005), ISBN 0-7432-6068-6.
  • “Off The Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman”, Edited by Robert H. Ferrell, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980, pp. 198–99

External links

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