Puerto Rican Nationalists Try to Assassinate President Truman
It was a peaceful, rather ordinary Wednesday afternoon in the nation’s capital on Nov. 1, 1950. While the White House was being renovated, President Harry Truman and his wife Bess were staying across the street in the Blair House. Around 2:15 the president was in an upstairs bedroom napping in his underwear, sound asleep—when suddenly the calm was shattered by a fierce exchange of gunshots.
The abruptly-awakened yet calm president stuck his head out the window and saw a scene of great confusion. Trouble from far away had literally come to Truman’s doorstep: two Puerto Rican nationalists had rushed Blair House to assassinate him. The president’s nap was over.
Puerto Rico has been controlled by the United States ever since the U.S. defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. The Treaty of Paris ending that war gave Spain’s colonies, including Cuba, Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, to the United States. Puerto Rico was first led by a military government, then a civilian one, but always under strict control of the Americans, who basically turned Puerto Rico into a vast sugar plantation. The U.S. officially designated Puerto Rico an “unincorporated territory” with its citizens not covered by all of the protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Most Puerto Ricans came to resent the foreign control of their homeland. Eventually, greater political freedom slowly came to the island. In 1947, Puerto Ricans were given the right to elect their own governor, and in 1950 Congress passed a law allowing Puerto Rico to draft a constitution. However, a group called the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party believed the U.S. would forever treat Puerto Rico as an American colony. The Nationalists wanted independence for Puerto Rico, and they were willing to use violence to achieve this goal.
On Oct. 30, 1950, Nationalist forces staged an uprising throughout the island. Nationalists attacked police stations and post offices, and stormed the Governor’s Palace in the capital of San Juan. The authorities imposed martial law and the National Guard moved in to suppress the resistance. Hundreds of Nationalists were arrested, ending the immediate violence, but the aftermath of this uprising came to President Truman’s door.
Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo were two Puerto Rican Nationalists living in New York City. Collazo had moved to NYC in 1941, Torresola in 1948. The two met, shared their passion for an independent Puerto Rico, and became good friends. Torresola had a sister wounded in the October 30 uprising in Puerto Rico, and a brother arrested. Angry that the uprising had failed, he and Collazo decided to assassinate President Truman to dramatize Puerto Rico’s independence movement.
The assassination attempt lasted all of 40 seconds. When it was over, Torresola was dead and Collazo severely wounded. Three men guarding the president were wounded: Donald Birdzell, Leslie Coffelt, and Joseph Downs—Coffelt mortally. Collazo was sentenced to death in 1952, but President Truman showed mercy on his attacker and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Collazo spent a total of 29 years in jail before being released by President Carter in 1979, and died back in Puerto Rico in 1994 at the age of 80.
The following two newspaper articles describe the assassination attempt on President Truman. The first gives an account of the entire attack, while the second describes how President Truman was napping in his underwear when the attack began.
This copyrighted article was published by the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) on the front page of its Nov. 1, 1950, issue:
Two Shot Trying to Assassinate Truman
One Killed as Alert Blair House Guards Block Entrance—
Three Police Wounded in Gun Battle
Washington—AP—Two men with blazing German Luger pistols rushed President Truman’s home today in an apparent attempt to assassinate the President.
They were shot down in a furious gun battle outside. One was killed. Three members of the President’s guard detail were wounded.
Mr. Truman was in the Presidential residence, the Blair House, when the shootings occurred about 2:15 p.m., a few minutes before he was to leave for a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Police Inspector Hobart Francis told reporters: “I presume it was an attempt to assassinate the President.”
The rattling outburst of gunfire came without warning on a sunny afternoon in front of the yellow brick house which the President is occupying while the White House, across the street, is being renovated.
First eyewitness accounts said one of the gunmen charged across broad Pennsylvania Avenue toward Blair House and the other came from a corner west of the temporary executive mansion. Both were shooting as they ran.
White House guards immediately returned the gunmen’s fire. One of the men was shot down on the canopied steps of Blair House. He fell with blood spurting from a chest wound. The other likewise crumpled under a volley of bullets.
The scene immediately became one of wild confusion. Police cars rushed to the scene with sirens screaming. A crowd gathered. Secret Service men threw a guard around the immediate area.
President Truman peered out briefly at the hubbub. He left the Blair House a half hour after the shooting, through the rear entrance and under heavy guard, for the Arlington ceremony.
White House police said the gunmen carried papers identifying them tentatively as Marion R. Preston [i.e., Griselio Torresola], dead, and Oscar Olliskin, or O. Oloskin [i.e., Oscar Collazo], seriously wounded through the head and chest.
Archie B. Davis, who saw the shooting, said a “regular fusillade” of shots was fired—somewhere between 8 and 12 in a matter of seconds.
Davis said one of the gunmen was hit as he ran away from the Blair House toward the west.
The President was surrounded by Secret Service men holding submachine guns when he left the executive residence after the shooting. His car was followed by a second automobile, filled with police. Other policemen on motorcycles led and flanked the Presidential car.
The White House guards wounded were Don Birdzell, Leslie Coffelt and Joe Downs.
They were taken to Emergency Hospital and their condition was not immediately known.
For some time after the gun battle, the two civilians lay where they had fallen—one on the Blair House steps and the other to one side.
Police Inspector Francis gave newsmen this account:
“It was started by this guy pulling a gun out and starting shooting at this officer (Joseph Downs, a member of the White House Police Department).
“The agent (Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring) who was in a wooden guard house started pulling a gun and shooting at him (the civilian). He got him.”
Francis said the man died on the sidewalk in front of the Blair House.
Regular White House reporters, assigned to cover Mr. Truman’s activities, were in their press room waiting for a limousine to accompany Truman to Arlington Cemetery when word came that “a policeman has been killed in the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue.” This is the White House address.
This copyrighted article was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Nov. 2, 1950:
Gunfire Halts Truman Nap
President Calm, Says Secretary
Washington, Nov. 1 (AP)—President Truman was stretched out on his bed in his underwear, taking an afternoon nap, when two gunmen made their try Wednesday to assassinate him.
Charles Ross, his secretary, said Mr. Truman was sound asleep.
He was awakened by the shots and rushed to an open window where he saw a man lying on the steps of Blair House and great confusion all around.
Ross related that a policeman looked up and saw the president standing there and shouted, “get back, get back.”
The president did as he was told and then got dressed as fast as he could.
Ross said the chief executive had taken off his coat, trousers and shirt and had stretched out on the bed for the nap.
Ross related that Mrs. Truman came rushing into the president’s room to see “what it was all about.”
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She looked out of the window and expressed fear that one of the secret service men that she knew had been killed.
Ross said Mrs. Truman was quite upset but was reassured by the president.
When the president came downstairs, Ross said he never in his life saw a calmer man: “He was the calmest person in the place.”
Ross asked Mr. Truman if he would keep his appointment to attend a ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Why of course,” Mr. Truman said.
By then, the president knew pretty well what had happened.
After two of the wounded policemen had been carried into Blair House, Mr. Truman went to the front door. He peered through the screen, his face grave, then turned away.
For more information, visit the Blair House: The Assassination Attempt on President Truman website provided by NPR.