Assault on Blair House
John William Tuohy
November 1, 1950.
President Harry Truman resided in the Blair House (Across from the street White House) while the interior of the White House was completely gutted and rebuilt.
Puerto Rican terrorist Griselio Torresola walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side while his partner, Oscar Collazo, walked up to Capitol police officer Donald Birdzell on the steps of the Blair House.
Approaching Birdzell from behind, Collazo pulled out a Walther P38 handgun, pointed it at the officer's back, and pulled the trigger; but since he had failed to chamber a round in it, nothing happened. After pounding on his pistol and fumbling around with it, Collazo managed to chamber and fire the weapon just as Birdzell was turning to face him, striking the officer in his right knee.
Nearby, Secret Service Special Agent Floyd Boring and White House Police officer Joseph Davidson heard the shot and opened fire on Collazo with their service revolvers. It was later said that Boring stood back and cocked the hammer on his revolver to make accurate shots, while most of the other officers fired double-action, as quickly as they could.
Collazo returned fire but found himself outgunned, as the wounded Birdzell managed to draw his weapon and join the shootout. Soon after, Collazo was struck by two .38 caliber rounds in the head and right arm, while other officers rushed to join the fight.
Meanwhile, Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner of the Blair House, and saw police officer Leslie Coffelt, sitting inside. In a double-handed shooting stance, Torresola quickly pivoted around the opening of the booth.
Now shot in both knees, Birdzell was no longer able to stand and was effectively incapacitated (He would later recover). Soon after, the severely wounded Collazo was hit in the chest by a ricochet shot from Davidson, and was also incapacitated
Torresola realized he was out of ammunition. He stood to the immediate left of the Blair House steps while he reloaded. At the same time, President Truman, who had been taking a nap in his second-floor bedroom, awoke to the sound of gunfire outside.
Truman, dressed in a tee shirt and boxer shorts, went to his bedroom window, opened it, and looked outside. From where he stood reloading, Torresola was thirty-one feet away from that window.
At that same moment, the mortally-wounded Coffelt staggered out of his guard booth, leaned against it, and aimed his revolver at Torresola, who was approximately 30 feet away. Coffelt fired and hit Torresola two inches above the ear, killing him instantly. Coffelt was taken to the hospital and died four hours later
It is unknown whether Torresola saw Truman, when the president opened and looked out his window. If Torresola did see him, then officer Coffelt may have saved Truman's life, and sacrificed his own life in doing so.
The gunfight involving Torresola lasted approximately 20 seconds, while the gunfight with Collazo lasted approximately 38.5 seconds. Only one shot fired by Collazo hit someone, while all of the rest of the damage was done by Torresola.
In a letter to his cousin, Ethel Noland, dated November 17, 1950, President Truman wrote:
I'm sorry I didn’t get to talk to you and (cousin) Nellie at the dinner or after it. But I'm really a prisoner now.
Everybody is much more worried and jittery than I am. I've always thought that if I could get my hands on a would-be assassin he'd never try it again. But I guess that's impossible. The grand guards who were hurt in the attempt on me didn't have a fair chance. The one who was killed was just cold bloodedly murdered before he could do anything.
But his assassin did not live but a couple of minutes – one of the S.S. (Secret Service) men put a bullet in one ear and it came out the other. I stuck my head out the upstairs window to see what was going on. One of the guards yelled, "Get back." I did, then dressed and went downstairs. I was the only calm one in the house. You see, I've been shot at by experts and unless your name's on the bullet you needn't be afraid – and that of course you can't find out, so why worry.
The S.S. chief said to me, "Mr. President, don't you know that when there's an Air Raid Alarm you don't run out and look up, you go for cover." I saw the point but it was over then.
Hope it won't happen again. They won't let me go walking or even cross the street on foot. I say 'they' won't, but it causes them so much anguish that I conform – a hard thing for a Truman to do as you know, particularly when he could force them to do as he wants. But I want no more guards killed.