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You are here -> HOME - RETROVILLE - 1950 - In the News - Truman Assassination Attempt
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Welcome to Retroville! It's 1950!
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Girsel Torresola attempted to assassinate President Truman in Washington D.C. Truman was unharmed, but one guard was killed and two others were seriously injured.

On October 31, Oscar Collazo and Girsel Torresola had arrived in DC via train. They spent that evening and the morning of the following day sightseeing, touring the area around Blair House, and buying postcards.

On November 1, the men breakfasted, took in a few sights, then returned to their hotel. Collazo taught Torresola how to use a gun, then he broke them down, cleaned, and reassembled them.  After stuffing 69 rounds of ammunition into their pockets, they tucked their guns into their trousers of their new suits, and headed out of the hotel. On their way out, the two men were calm enough to actually ask a hotel clerk about late check-out (in the event they were delayed).  After receiving assurance that an hour or two wouldn't matter, they left their hotel.

The gunmen headed for Blair House where President Truman and his wife were living while the White House underwent structural repairs. The President and First Lady had eaten lunch and returned to Blair House to await his scheduled 2:50 unveiling of a statue at Arlington National Cemetary. Luckily for the President, the gunmen hadn't known about this scheduled appointment because it would have been easy to shoot him as he exited Blair House to enter his car for the ride to Arlington.

At approximately 2:20 that afternoon, Collazo and Torresola arrived at Blair House, approaching the converted townhouse from opposite directions. At that time, there were a total of seven guards for the President stationed at various entrances to Blair House.

At the front steps, Donald Birdzell (a guard), who was facing westward at the time, heard a sharp click. Collazo had tried to shoot him at point-blank range, but the gun had misfired. 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.

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 that 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. Downs survived wounds that would have killed a weaker man. Collazo was not critically injured.

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 at Arlington National Cemetary. "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."

At his trial in 1951, Oscar Collazo, refusing to heed 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 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 on appeal, and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. The execution date was set for August 1, 1952.

On July 24, 1952, 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.

A recap of all the important players in this event:

  • President Harry S. Truman (intended victim)
  • First Lady Bess Truman (innocent bystander, wife of intended victim)
  • Oscar Collazo (ringleader of the assassination attempt, first assassin)
  • Girsel Torresola (second assassin)
  • Private Joseph Downs (guard at Blair House, former Marine)
  • Vincent Mroz (Secret Service Agent stationed at Blair House, former Michigan State University football star)
  • Private Leslie Coffelt (guard at Lee side of Blair House)
  • Private Joseph Davidson (guard at Lee side of Blair House)
  • Donald Birdzall (staircase guard at Blair House)
  • Stewart Stout (inside door guard at Blair House, former Pennsylvania State Trooper)
  • Floyd M. Boring (Secret Service Agent stationed at Blair House)
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