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Shoot-Out on Pennsylvania: May/June '98 American History Feature

Originally published by American History magazine. Published Online: August 19, 1998 
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Shoot-Out on Pennsylvania
Shoot-Out on Pennsylvania

Thanks to the actions of themen assigned to protect him, President Harry S. Truman survived a harrowing attempt on his life by two Puerto Rican nationalists.

By Elbert B. Smith

At 7:30 p.m. on October 31, 1950, two dapper gentlemen arrived at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and walked to the nearby Hotel Harris, where they registered separately, as though they were strangers. The front-desk clerk, noting their new suits and dark hats, surmised that the one with the steel-rimmed glasses and kindly face was a divinity student. Actually, the two polite guests were Puerto Rican terrorists who had come to Washington to kill President Harry S. Truman, and with wiser planning and better luck, they might have succeeded.

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The would-be assassins were members of the small, volatile Puerto Rican Nationalist Party headed by Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate whose exposure to racism in the American Army during World War I had left him an embittered advocate of the Caribbean island's independence through violent revolution. Although the Nationalist Party had failed miserably at the polls and fielded no candidates after 1932, its members had remained convinced that their cause would triumph.

While most Puerto Ricans rejected Albizu Campos's extremist policies, many shared his feelings toward the United States. For years a wide gulf had existed between the poor majority of the island's population and the wealthy minority. Successful American efforts to eradicate various diseases had spurred a population explosion that often erased economic gains as fast as they occurred. Simultaneously, because the United States had granted the island no real self-government until the 1940s, Washington could be held at least partly responsible for difficulties within Puerto Rico. American missionaries, teachers, and physicians worked unselfishly to aid Puerto Rican citizens, but they could not solve all the problems, and the goodwill they created was often offset by unfortunate incidents.

One such episode occurred when a young American doctor named Cornelius Rhoads, who was conducting research in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, wrote an ill-advised letter that a technician found and gave to Albizu Campos. The island, the doctor had written, needed "not improved health but . . . something to exterminate the entire population . . . ." Rhoads insisted that he was being facetious, and an investigation proved that none of his patients had been mistreated. Nonetheless, Albizu Campos and the Nationalists bitterly resented the United States for its refusal to punish the physician for his comments.

Although the Nationalists were weakened after 1932 by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal efforts to help the Puerto Rican people, Albizu Campos announced a new government on the island with himself at its head and organized a black-shirted army of liberation. During the next two decades the party's tactics included bombings, assassinations, and pitched battles with the police. Its violent methods did not win it popular support but did intensify the dedication of the faithful. Ironically, the Nationalists received financial aid from several wealthy Puerto Rican landowners who were chafing under the reforms of the New Deal.

Among the Nationalist Party's true believers in 1950 was 36-year-old Oscar Collazo. In 1932, at the age of 18, Collazo had traveled to his native Puerto Rico after several unhappy months working at the Army and Navy Club in New York City. Soon after hearing an impassioned speech by Albizu Campos and learning of Dr. Rhoads' insulting letter, Collazo dedicated his life to the Nationalist Party. He returned to New York, where he married Rosa Mercado, a divorcée with two daughters, who was herself a devoted nationalist.

In 1941, the Collazo family moved into a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York whose residents suffered from homesickness, ethnic discrimination, and economic exploitation. By then Collazo had become a skilled metal polisher with an excellent reputation. On Sundays he would serve as an interpreter and guide to new immigrants, and he represented the workers on his union's negotiating committee. Meanwhile, he was a model husband and father who paid his bills on time and did not smoke or drink. Collazo, in short, led a useful and reasonably successful life that might have satisfied a less complicated and confused personality.

Twenty-five-year-old Griselio Torresola's radicalism was almost inbred, as his family had participated in every Puerto Rican revolution for a century. He and his brother, Elio, and two sisters, Angelina and Doris, were devoted to Albizu Campos almost from childhood. In August 1948, Griselio got a job in a New York stationery and perfume store, but he was let go when a divorce caused him to become despondent and unreliable. For the remainder of his life, Torresola, with a new wife and one of his two young daughters, lived on a relief stipend of $125 a month. He longed to do something important, and he had one talent that Collazo lacked; he was deadly with a pistol, while Collazo had never fired a handgun.

In 1943, Pedro Albizu Campos finished a federal prison term in Atlanta, stemming from his revolutionary activities in Puerto Rico, and joined Collazo in New York, where he established a new Nationalist Party headquarters. By 1948, Collazo's revolutionary zeal had escalated, fueled by Albizu Campos's influence, a new sense of importance as he rose in the party's ranks, and his voracious reading about such heroes as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Simón Bolívar. Infuriated by discrimination against Puerto Ricans in New York City and by the indifference of most Americans toward his beloved island, Collazo could not comprehend the new realities of Puerto Rican progress.

Torresola spent much of 1950 purchasing arms for a planned October 28 revolt in Puerto Rico. On September 21 of that year, Albizu Campos directed that, should it become necessary, Torresola was to "assume the leadership of the movement in the United States without hesitation," and that he should "collect the funds…necessary to take care of the supreme necessities of the cause." The U.S. Secret Service later considered these letters proof that the subsequent actions of Collazo and Torresola were part of a larger conspiracy. However, the agency concluded that the poor planning evidenced by Collazo and Torresola indicated that they had acted on their own when they tried to kill the president.

The attempted coup of October 28 in San Juan was a fiasco, and efforts to assassinate Governor Muñoz Marín failed. Torresola's sister was wounded, and his brother was sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a policeman. In New York, Collazo and Torresola were frustrated and angered by their inability either to assist in the coup or die for the cause. Collazo then decided that the assassination of President Truman might lead to an American revolution that would provide the Nationalists with an opportunity to lead Puerto Rico to independence. The absurdity of such hopes was lost on the two zealots, who not only suffered from vengeful anger and martyr complexes, but remained under the powerful influence of Albizu Campos.

On Tuesday, October 31, Collazo and Torresola bought new suits and handbags, said fond farewells to their families, and purchased one-way train tickets to Washington. On the morning following their arrival in the nation's capital, they went sightseeing, bought some postcards, and took a taxi to Blair House, President Truman's temporary residence, where they carefully studied the security arrangements.

If Collazo and Torresola had planned more carefully, they might have succeeded in their mission, as no president in modern times has been more vulnerable to attack than Truman was during his years at Blair House.

In 1948, when inspectors discovered dangerous structural flaws in the White House, the decision was made to move the First Family to the Blair-Lee mansion across Pennsylvania Avenue, until repairs could be completed. This solution had seemed ideal to everyone, except those charged with ensuring Truman's safety.

Unlike the White House, which stood protected behind iron fences that enclosed an enormous expanse of lawn, Blair House was separated from the sidewalk–where hundreds of people passed every hour–by only a five-foot-wide front yard, a low hedge, and a shoulder-high iron fence. Moreover, the doors to Blair House were not always locked, and the logistics involved in getting President Truman back and forth to the White House were a daily problem. Frequently, the gregarious president, who loved to walk and greet people, had to be escorted on foot. Truman was informal and friendly with his guards, but their resulting affection for him did not make their job any easier.

Blair House actually consisted of two town houses–named for their Civil War-era residents, Montgomery Blair and Admiral Samuel Philips Lee–which had been combined into a single unit. Having been two separate residences, Blair House had two front doors, each at the top of a short flight of steps leading up from the sidewalk. The fence along the sidewalk turned at right angles to form railings for the stairways. The basement floor was at street level, with narrow walkways at each end of the building leading from the sidewalk to service doors that were used by the household staff and the president's guards. Each basement door was protected by a guard stationed in a white sentry box on the sidewalk.

The canopy-covered front stairs to the east, or Blair House, front door were used by the president and his guests, and a guard was always stationed at the bottom step.* Just inside this door another guard stood with a machine gun within reach. All the guards carried pistols and were expert marksmen. Six of the usual seven-man detail actually stood guard; the seventh handled other duties that arose. Three men guarded the three entrances to the building, another was stationed just inside the front door, and two, including the officer-in-charge, moved around wherever needed. On November 1, 1950, the main front door was open because of the warm weather, but its screen door was locked.

Four of the guards on duty that day were members of the White House Police, recruited from the Washington Metropolitan Police. The remaining three were part of the Secret Service, which shared the task of presidential security within the capital city and assumed the full burden when the president traveled. All the men had performed well in other jobs, had served in the armed forces, and were proud of their assignment. Only two had ever been under direct fire. As a Marine in Nicaragua in 1929, 44-year-old Private Joseph Downs had been commended for "exceptional coolness and bravery." Secret Service Agent Vincent Mroz, a former Michigan State University football star, had been involved in a shoot-out in Chicago just a few months earlier.

Stationed at the sentry box on the west, or Lee House, side of the residence was forty-year-old Private Leslie Coffelt, a quiet, good-humored man who was liked by everyone. At the other box was Private Joseph Davidson, at 37 the group's only bachelor. Donald Birdzell, 41 years old, guarded the stairway to the all-important front door to Blair House, while Pennsylvania State Police veteran Stewart Stout stood just inside that door. In charge of the detail was another graduate of the Pennsylvania State Police, 35-year-old Secret Service Agent Floyd M. Boring.

Having planned their simple strategy, Collazo and Torresola ate lunch and returned to their hotel, where Torresola taught his cohort how to handle his gun. After cleaning and oiling their weapons, the men took a taxi cab back to Blair House, carrying 69 rounds of ammunition between them. Appearing unperturbed as he left the hotel, Collazo calmly asked the clerk about the posted check-out time and was assured that leaving an hour or so late was fine.

By this time, President Truman, having been driven home for lunch with Mrs. Truman, was taking a nap. His schedule called for him to leave Blair House at 2:50 p.m. to be driven to Arlington National Cemetery for the unveiling of a statue. Had the assassins looked at a Washington newspaper and learned something of the president's schedule, they would have known that there would be ample opportunities to strike as the president walked to his car or from among the trees and monuments at Arlington. Fortunately, however, they were ignorant of his timetable; they were not even certain that he was at home.

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."

Private Coffelt's seriously ill wife was scheduled to have a kidney removed only four days after the tragedy. Although she was still in shock from the death of her husband, presidential aides persuaded her to postpone the surgery and go to Puerto Rico. For three days she received expressions of sorrow from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds, to whom she dutifully responded with a simple speech absolving the island's people of blame for the acts of two fanatics. Puerto Rican school children contributed almost two hundred dollars, most of it in pennies, to their own special fund for her welfare. Observers believed that her visit helped to ease the tensions created by the earlier attempted coup of the Nationalists.

At his trial in 1951, Oscar Collazo, scorning his attorney's advice that he plead insanity, delivered an impassioned oration from the witness stand decrying the brutal exploitation of Puerto Rico by the United States. Many of his facts were dated or inaccurate, and neither the American public nor the people of Puerto Rico paid much attention. The United States had already offered full political autonomy to Puerto Rico the year before, and in 1952, the island became a self-governing commonwealth. Truman himself had named the first native Puerto Rican governor of the island and had extended social security to its people. Mrs. Coffelt's reception in Puerto Rico was a far more accurate indication of the mindset of the island's people than were the actions of Oscar Collazo.

The jury found Collazo guilty of murder, attempted assassination, and assault with intent to kill. Since his collaboration with Torresola made him a principal in the death of Coffelt, Judge T. Alan Goldsborough sentenced Collazo to death. A higher court upheld the conviction, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The execution was set for August 1, 1952. On July 24, however, President Truman denied Collazo martyrdom by commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Nearly thirty years later, President Jimmy Carter had the now-elderly Collazo released. Returning to Puerto Rico, Collazo lived quietly until his death in 1994.

Pedro Albizu Campos, the ill-starred near-genius who had inspired Collazo and Torresola and left a long trail of death and destruction in his wake, died peacefully in April 1965. The racial orientation of the U.S. Army in 1918 had cast a long and tragic shadow.

In May 1952, President Truman dedicated a plaque to Leslie Coffelt in front of Blair House. The fortunate president spoke from the heart and with wisdom gained from experience that day when he vowed to cooperate with his guards in every way possible. He did so, he said, not because he was personally afraid, but because he had learned the hard way the extent of his own responsibility for the safety of the men assigned to protect him.


Elbert B. Smith, professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, is the author of a prize-winning biography of Francis P. Blair, whose descendants gave Blair House to the U.S. government.

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