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Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Series
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Flag of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.svg
Flag of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party
Griselio Torresola

The assassination attempt on U.S. President Harry S. Truman occurred on November 1, 1950. It was perpetrated by two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, while the President resided at the Blair House. The attempt resulted in the murder of one White House police officer and the death of one assassin while President Harry S. Truman was not harmed.

Contents

Background

In the 1940s, Puerto Rican nationalists were increasingly angered by what they viewed as great injustices towards Puerto Rico, including the Ponce Massacre, the alleged extrajudicial murders of certain nationalists, the jailing of Pedro Albizu Campos for his advocacy of violent resistance, and the impending change of Puerto Rico's status from a non-autonomous territory to a partially self-governing commonwealth. They viewed Puerto Rico as a colony demanding independence.

Oscar Collazo with his wife Rosa

Griselio Torresola came from a family that believed in the Puerto Rican independence cause, while Oscar Collazo had been participating in the movement since childhood. They met in New York City and became good friends. On October 28, 1950, they received the news that the Jayuya Uprising, led by the nationalist Blanca Canales in Puerto Rico, had failed. Torresola's sister had been wounded and his brother Elio was arrested. Collazo and Torresola then decided to assassinate President Truman with the intention of bringing world attention to the independence cause of Puerto Rico.

During the presidency of Harry Truman, the White House was found to have serious structural faults and was completely gutted and renovated. While the White House was undergoing renovation, the President resided at Blair House.

The attempt

Blair House, site of the attempt, as it is today.
At the time of the attempt there were two guard booths out front which are not present today.

Torresola walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side while his partner, Oscar Collazo, walked up to Capital police officer Donald Birdzell on the steps of the Blair house. Approaching Birdzell from behind, Collazo pulled out a Walther P38 handgun, pointed it at the officer's back, and pulled the trigger; but nothing happened. After pounding on his pistol and fumbling around with it, Collazo managed to fire the weapon just as Birdzell was turning to face him, striking the officer in his right knee. Nearby, Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring and White House Police officer Joseph Davidson heard the shot and opened fire on Collazo with their service revolvers. Collazo returned fire, but soon found himself outgunned as the wounded Birdzell managed to draw his weapon and join the shootout. Soon after, Collazo was struck by two .38 caliber rounds in the head and right arm, while other officers rushed to join the fight.

Meanwhile, Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner of the Blair House, and noted an officer, Private Leslie Coffelt, sitting inside. Torresola, in a double handed Weaver Stance, quickly pivoted from left to right around the opening of the booth. Coffelt was taken completely by surprise, as tourists often stopped at the box to ask for information. Torresola fired four shots from his 9 mm German Luger semi-automatic pistol at close range at Coffelt. Three of the shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, and the fourth went through his policeman's tunic. Coffelt slumped down in his chair, mortally wounded.

Torresola then turned his attention to plainclothes White House policeman Joseph Downs. Downs, who had just paused to chat with Coffelt, proceeded down the walkway to the basement door at the west end of the Blair-Lee house when he heard shots being fired. Downs noticed Torresola, but was shot once in the hip before he could draw his weapon. Downs turned back towards the house, and was shot twice more by Torresola, once in the back and once in the neck. Downs staggered to the basement door, opened it, slid in, and then slammed the door behind him, denying Torresola entry into the Blair House.

White House Policeman Leslie W. Coffelt

Torresola then turned his attention to the shoot-out between his partner, Collazo, and several other law enforcement officers. Torresola noted wounded policeman Donald Birdzell aiming at Collazo from the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Torresola aimed and shot Birdzell in the left knee from a distance of approximately 40 feet. Now shot in both knees, Birdzell was no longer able to stand and flopped over. He would later recover. But soon after, the severely wounded Collazo was hit in the chest by a ricochet shot from Davidson and was incapacitated, too.

Torresola realized he was out of ammunition. He stood to the immediate left of the Blair House steps while he reloaded. At the same time, President Truman, who had been taking a nap in his second-floor bedroom, awoke to the sound of gunfire outside. President Truman went to his bedroom window, opened it, and looked outside. From where he stood reloading, Torresola was thirty-one feet away from that window. It is unknown whether either man saw the other.

At the same time, the mortally-wounded Coffelt staggered out of his guard booth, leaned against it, and aimed his revolver at Torresola, who was approximately 30 feet away. Coffelt fired, hitting Torresola two inches above the ear on a slight upward angle, killing him instantly [1]. Coffelt was taken to hospital but died some four hours later.

The gunfight involving Torresola lasted approximately 20 seconds, while the gunfight with Collazo lasted approximately 38.5 seconds [2].

Aftermath

Coffelt's widow, 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. 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.

Oscar Collazo was sentenced to death, which was later commuted by Truman to a life sentence. Pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Collazo was released and went back to Puerto Rico. He died in 1994. His wife, Rosa, was also arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on suspicion of having conspired with her husband in the attempt, and spent eight months in federal prison. Upon her release from prison, Rosa continued to work with the Nationalist Party. She helped gather 100,000 signatures in an effort to save her husband from the electric chair.

See also

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

Drama at Blair House: the attempted assassination of Harry Truman


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