Today’s post comes from Eric Rhodes, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.
Harry S. Truman, 1945. (National Archives Identifier 7865606)
Assassins’ bullets have claimed the lives of four United States Presidents, and several other Presidents survived attempts on their lives.
It is not widely known, but Harry Truman was the target of such a conspiracy.
Thirteen years before the Kennedy assassination, on November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to take the President’s life. And President Truman’s Missouri-bred “Show Me” instinct might have gotten him killed. The buck certainly would have stopped there.
The day before the attempt, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola boarded a train to Washington from the Bronx in New York. They carried with them two pistols and the goal of bringing national attention to the cause of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP).
Founded in 1922, the PRNP had lobbied for Puerto Rican independence from the United States with both the pen and the sword. By 1950, the party’s charismatic president, the Harvard-educated Pedro Albizu Campos, had come to favor the latter. Campos orchestrated a series of armed uprisings against U.S. military attachés on October 30, 1950, in six Puerto Rican towns.
The nationalist assault culminated with the attempted assassination of Harry Truman by Collazo and Torresola, both activists in the New York chapter of the party.
The shell of the White House during the renovation, May 17, 1950. (National Archives Identifier 6982099)
It is believed that they made the decision to assassinate Truman, and to face certain death at the hands of the Secret Service, after hearing reports about U.S. military reprisals against nationalists in Torresola’s home town of Jayuya, Puerto Rico on October 31, 1950.
Torresola, an experienced gunman, acquired a P38 and a German Luger for their infamous labor. He had to teach Collazo how to wield the pistol before departing New York, as the latter had little experience with guns.
The two would-be assassins awoke in a rundown hotel near Capitol Hill on November 1. They donned their new chalk stripe suits, stuffed the pistols into their waistbands, and did what any first time visitors to DC do: they went sightseeing.
After spending the morning touring the U.S. Capitol Building and its environs, Collazo and Torresola hailed a taxi and told the cabbie to take them to the President’s residence at the White House.
But the haberdasher-turned-POTUS was not, in fact, living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Diagram of assassination attempt on President Truman at Blair House,” November 2, 1950. (International News Photo, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, National Archives)
An hour before, Harry Truman had crossed Jackson Place to have lunch with his beloved First Lady, Bess. For almost two years, the Trumans had been living in Blair House, traditionally the President’s guest house for official visitors, while the White House underwent a major renovation.
They would spend the vast majority of President Truman’s second term there. Around 2 p.m., President Truman retired to his suite on the second floor of the Blair House for his customary afternoon nap.
Approximately 15 minutes into Truman’s slumber, Collazo and Torresola exited their cab at 15th street. They strolled past and surveyed the front of Blair House. There were four men outside the building’s front door, which stood behind two guard booths. It was time to strike.
Collazo, a well-known bibliophile and family man—and not much of a shot—sneaked up behind White House police officer Donald Birdzell and pulled the trigger. Owing to Collazo’s inexperience with firearms, the gun did not fire but snapped noisily. It took a second pull at the trigger to successfully land a bullet in Birdzell’s right knee.
The gunshot alerted members of the Secret Service, who quickly emerged from Blair House and fired bullets into Collazo’s chest as he was ascending the steps of Blair House. Collazo was incapacitated.
Oscar Collazo Lying Wounded at the Entrance to Blair House, November 1, 1950. (Copyright Life Magazine, Getty Images, courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, National Archives)
In the interim, Torresola strafed across the eastern edge of the building, ambushing White House policeman Leslie Coffelt. Brandishing his Luger, Torresola deftly lodged three bullets in Coffelt’s torso.
Coffelt would shortly become the first and only member of the Secret Service to die protecting the President from an assassination attempt. After emptying the rest of his clip into two other guards, Torresola stood by to reload.
Less than 30 seconds into the longest gun battle in Secret Service history, Give ‘Em Hell Harry popped his head out of the second-story window to see what all the commotion was about.
Had members of the Secret Service not promptly yelled at him to “get down” (he complied), or had Torresola not been reloading at this precise moment, the President may have met an early end.
The mortally wounded Coffelt was not yet out of commission. With a final burst of energy, he leveled his pistol at Torresola’s temple and squeezed. The failed assassin was killed instantly, and the plot to kill Truman was thwarted. Coffelt would go down in Secret Service history as a hero.
The entire exchange lasted for less than one minute, but this episode would have lasting ramifications for Presidential security procedure.
The telegram giving orders to the Governor of Puerto Rico to commute Collazo’s death sentence, July 24, 1952. (Truman Library & Museum, National Archives)
In 1951, in the wake of the assassination attempt, Congress passed legislation that increased the purview of the Secret Service’s protection to include the President, his family, the President-elect, and the Vice President. The attempt on Truman’s life was the event that created the modern Secret Service as we know it today.
In 1952, a week before his scheduled execution, Truman commuted the Collazo’s death sentence to life imprisonment. Firmly believing that he was never in danger, Truman expressed that the thing he hated most about the case was that three young men, “one of them killed, and two of them badly wounded,” had ended up as casualties. He was of the opinion that it was “all so unnecessary for a thing like that” to have happened.
President Jimmy Carter later commuted Collazo’s sentence to time served. Collazo died in Puerto Rico in 1994.
Many thanks to Randy Sowell of the Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri, for sharing his great expertise on Truman’s assassination attempt.
President and Mrs. Truman at Arlington National Cemetery, attending funeral services for Pvt. Leslie Coffelt, November 4, 1950. (National Archives Identifier 200242)
Collazo’s daughter’s letter to Truman, thanking him for sparing her father’s life, July 25, 1952.
(Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, National Archives)