Protecting the president requires suicidal dedication
By John L. Guerra
As he lay in his bed in the Blair House on a fall morning in 1950, President Harry Truman awoke to the sound of pistol fire.
When he looked down from his second-story window, he saw a man on the front walk, firing at his body guards in an attempt to gain entry.
Most assassins try to get the president while he's away from his living quarters; not this man - nor his two accomplices who were engaged in a gun battle with two of Truman's other uniformed protectors around the corner.
That violent morning, lost to most memories except to those belonging to present-day Secret Service agents, is a measuring stick of valor that all who protect the president are expected to meet.
There is another thread worth mentioning: The two Truman attackers were, in effect, terrorists acting in concert with a violent uprising in Puerto Rico.
A possible attack on the White House by those sympathetic to ISIS is one possibility mentioned by lawmakers who grilled former Secret Service chief Julia Pierson at the Hill hearing two weeks ago.
As in the case of the White House sprinter, the would-be assassins in 1950 took the presidential guards by surprise. In fact, the reaction of the men guarding the sleeping Truman is a model for how such situations ought to be handled. It is a showcase of bravery, fast-thinking and everlasting honor.
Here’s how it went down, according to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Mo., a sort of sister museum to the Little White House Museum in Key West.
The attackers—Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola--were members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a group that was violently seeking independence for the island nation. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, in the eyes of the attackers.
Torresola approached along Pennsylvania Avenue from the west, while Collazo snuck up on Capitol police officer Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the steps of the Blair House. As Truman napped on the second floor, Collazo walked up behind Birdzell and pulled the trigger on his 9mm pistol, but he had forgotten to chamber a round. Instead of a shot, the chilling sound of a hammer slamming shut alerted the guard. As Birdzell turned, Collazo--perhaps panicking--quickly chambered a round and fired, hitting Birdzell in the knee.
Hearing the shot, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz ran through a basement corridor of the Blair House and exited a street-level door and opened fire, stopping Collazo on the outside steps with a bullet to the chest. Meanwhile, Torresola had approached a guard booth at the west corner and took White House Police officer Leslie Coffelt by surprise, shooting him four times with a 9mm Luger, mortally wounding him. Three of those shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, and the fourth went through his jacket.
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, but Downs did not go down. He got into the basement and secured the door, denying Torresola entry into the Blair House.
Torresola then turned to the shoot-out between his partner and the other police officers. Birdzell, already shot in the right knee by Collazo, was shot in the left knee by Torresola. Torresola stood to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. The gunfire had awakened Truman from his nap and that's when the president appeared at the window, just 31 feet away from Torresola. Agents screamed at Truman to get down. He obeyed.
At that same moment, Coffelt left the guard booth, propped against it, and fired his .38-caliber service revolver at Torresola, who was about 30 feet away. Coffelt hit Torresola two inches above the ear, killing him instantly. Officer Coffelt--a hero--died in the hospital four hours later.
The entire gunfight lasted 40 seconds, but must have seemed to the officers to have occurred in slow motion. Their bravery made them unstoppable. Injured badly, they continued to fight until the president was safe.
What’s also worth mentioning about this attack is that it was timed to coincide with military attacks by Puerto Rican nationalists in their home country. On Oct. 30, the day before, "terrorists" with the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party had launched an uprising to throw off American colonialism.
No one has said the Secret Service of 2014 lacks brave agents, but when assigning presidential detail, using the modern-day counterparts to Birdzell, Coffelt, Downs, and Mroz would be a good start.
Footnote: Puerto Rico meant something politically to the Democrats and Truman's foreign policy.
Oscar Collazo, who survived his wounds, was sentenced to death, but Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. He was released in 1979, when Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence again, to time served (perhaps Carter was looking to win the two electoral college votes Puerto Rico offers up during Election Night)?
Not only that, but Officer Coffelt's widow, Cressie E. Coffelt, was asked by Truman and the Secretary of State to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt responded with a speech absolving the island's people of blame for the acts of Collazo and Torresola.
Oscar Collazo continued to live a long, productive life. He continued to participate in activities related to the Puerto Rican independence movement. He lived to be 80 years old, dying on Feb. 21, 1994, of a stroke.