Thursday, November 01, 2007

November 1, 1950:

Assassins Gun for Truman

In late 1950, President Truman was living at Blair House across Pennsylvania Ave. from the the White House while that structure was undergoing a major renovation. Protecting the president wasn't as easy at Blair House as the White House, since Blair House fronted a busy street, and was without the high iron fence and broad lawn that surround the White House.

Two Puerto Rican extremists, 36-year-old Oscar Collazo and 25-year-old Griselio Torresola, decided to take advantage of the situation and assassinate Truman on November 1, 1950. Stationed in and around Blair House that day, guarding the president and the first family, were seven men, members of the White House Police and the Secret Service. One of these men was 40-year-old Private Leslie Coffelt (pictured), originally from a small town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. He, along with one of the assassins, were fated to kill each other that day.

According to the Arlington National Cemetery web site (Coffelt is buried there): "At approximately 2:20 p.m., a half-hour before the president's scheduled departure, Collazo and Torresola approached Blair House from opposite directions. Floyd Boring had just stepped outside for a routine check with his detail. He spoke with Private Coffelt, then moved to the other corner of the house, where he reported to headquarters on the phone in Private Davidson's booth. He was chatting with Davidson when Collazo walked by.

"At the front steps, Donald Birdzell, who was facing westward at the time, suddenly heard a sharp click. Collazo had tried to shoot him at point-blank range, but the gun had misfired. Either the first round in the clip was empty, or Collazo's inexperience had caused him to engage the safety lock at the moment of firing. Birdzell whirled around to see Collazo pounding the gun with his left fist, which caused it to fire, striking Birdzell in the right knee. To draw the fire away from the house, the wounded officer limped out into the street before turning to shoot back at Collazo, who had started up the now unguarded steps.

"Davidson halted Collazo by firing at him from the east booth area. Agent Boring also began firing. Collazo sat on the second step and fired a clip of bullets back at the two guards. He managed to reload, despite the bullets ricocheting off the iron picket fence and railing. Collazo's nose and an ear were grazed by bullets, and another tore through his hat. Meanwhile, Stewart Stout grabbed the machine gun and took up a position inside the house, at the door.

"Agent Mroz came out the basement door behind Boring and Davidson, took one shot at Collazo, then raced back into the Lee House basement to meet a new threat at the basement door on the other end of the building, where Torresola had acted with much more effectiveness than his partner. Approaching from the west, Torresola had reached Private Coffelt's sentry box immediately behind Downs, who had been away from Blair House on personal business and arrived at the basement door just as the gunfire erupted. Because tourists often stopped at the box for information, Coffelt was taken completely by surprise as Torresola fired three times into his chest, abdomen, and legs. Mortally wounded, Coffelt sank back into his chair, but managed to draw his gun while struggling to remain conscious. Downs, standing in the doorway, tried to draw his pistol, but Torresola shot him three times. Then, seeing that Officer Birdzell was shooting at Collazo from the street, the skilled gunman disabled that officer with a bullet through his left knee.

"At this crucial point, Torresola might have gone unimpeded through the west door to the basement, but Private Coffelt made a final supreme effort before losing consciousness and killed the assailant instantly with a shot through the head. If Torresola had gone through the door, he would have stood a very good chance of reaching the president, who now was guarded only by Agent Mroz and Officer Stout. Coffelt's heroic act may have saved the president, because no one within range was safe as long as Torresola was shooting. Boring, meanwhile, had shot Collazo through the chest, and the battle was over. Approximately thirty shots had been fired in less than three minutes.

"Leslie Coffelt died in a hospital less than four hours later. Birdzell's wounds were temporarily disabling, but not life-threatening, while Downs survived wounds that would have killed a weaker man. Collazo was not hurt critically.

"When the shooting ended, President Truman rushed to the window but was quickly waved back by Boring, who feared there might be more accomplices in the excited crowd on the street. Ten minutes later, the president left by a back door for his speech in Arlington. 'A president has to expect such things,' he calmly informed an aide. Truman later reassured Admiral William Leahy: 'The only thing you have to worry about is bad luck. I never have bad luck.' "

Collazo, the surviving terrorist, was sentenced to death, but President Truman commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. President Carter pardoned him in 1979 and he lived in Puerto Rico until his death in 1994.

No comments: