Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,
Kenneth
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Potus Geeks Summer Reruns: The Truman Assassination Attempt

Originally posted on November 1, 2014.

On November 1, 1950 two Puerto Rican pro-independence activists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted to assassinate President Harry S. Truman while the President resided at the Blair House. Renovations were taking place at the White House at the time. Torresola fatally wounded White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt, and Coffelt killed Torresola in return fire. Secret Service agents also were involved and wounded Collazo. President Truman was not harmed.

blair-house-shootout

In the 1950s, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Revolts took place, which were an armed series of protests for Puerto Rican independence by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. The revolts began on October 30, 1950, and rioting occurred in a number of communities including Peñuelas, Mayagüez, Naranjito, Arecibo and Ponce. The most notable uprisings occurred in Utuado, Jayuya, and San Juan. These were suppressed by strong military force, including the use of planes. In New York City, the Nationalists Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo developed a plan to assassinate President. Truman in order to demonstrate that the October 30 revolts were part of a larger movement for Puerto Rican independence. They had learned that Truman was living at the Blair House, while the White House was renovated.

The two men understood that their attempt would likely end in their deaths, but they wanted to draw world attention to the government persecution of Puerto Rican nationalists, and the need for Puerto Rican independence. Torresola, who was skilled in the use of firearms, taught Collazo how to load and handle a gun. They took the train to Washington, DC to familiarize themselves with the area and on November 1, 1950, they decided to make their attempt on Truman's life.

Torresola approached along Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side, while Collazo, walked up behind Capitol police officer, Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the steps of the Blair House. While President Truman napped on the second floor, Collazo shot at Birdzell, but the gun did not fire. Collazo fired again and shot Birdzell in his right knee.

After hearing the gunshots, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz ran through a basement corridor and stepped out of a street-level door on the east side of the House, where he opened fire on Collazo. Mroz shot Collazo in the chest. Two other officers took part in the shooting of the attackers.

Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner and took White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt by surprise, shooting at him four times from close range with a 9mm German Luger. Three of those shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, and the fourth went through his tunic. Torresola then shot police officer Joseph Downs in the hip, before the officer could draw his weapon. As Downs turned toward the house, Torresola shot him in the back and in the neck. Downs got into the basement and secured the door, preventing Torresola entering into Blair House. Torresola then turned his attention to the shoot-out between his partner Collazo and several other police officers. He shot officer Donald Birdzell in the left knee. This left Birdzell unable to stand. He would later recover from his wounds.

Torresola stood to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. President Truman had awakened from a nap to the sound of gunfire and looked outside his second floor window. Torresola was 31 feet away from Truman's window. Secret Service agents shouted at Truman to get away from the window.

At that time, Officer Leslie Coffelt left the guard booth, leaned against it, and fired his .38-caliber service revolver at Torresola, about 30 feet away. Coffelt hit Torresola two inches above the ear, killing him instantly. Coffelt was taken to the hospital and died four hours later.

Coffelt's widow, Cressie E. Coffelt, was asked by President Truman to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt responded with a magnanimous speech in which she stated that she did not blame the people of Puerto Rico for the actions of Collazo and Torresola.

Oscar Collazo was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death. Truman later commuted the death sentence to a life sentence. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted Collazo's sentence to the time served, and the former revolutionary was released. He returned to live in Puerto Rico, where he died in 1994.

blair-house-1950-truman

At the time of the assassination attempt, the FBI arrested Collazo's wife, Rosa, on suspicion of having conspired with her husband in the plan. She spent eight months in federal prison but did not go to trial. Upon her release, she helped to gather 100,000 signatures on a petition to save her husband from execution.

The incident did elevate the issue of Puerto Rica independence. In 1952 Truman allowed a plebiscite in Puerto Rico to determine the status of its relationship to the U.S. The people voted 81.9% in favor of continuing as a Free Associated State, as established in 1950.
Tags: assassination attempt, harry s. truman, jimmy carter
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