Drama at Blair House: the attempted assanation of Harry Truman

Discussion in 'Self Defense Tactics & Weapons' started by Terry_P, May 10, 2010.

  1. Terry_P

    Terry_P New Member

    Mar 23, 2008
    Bit of a long read but I enjoyed it and though someone else may be interested in the book review by Massad Ayoob . There is more to read at the link provided:


    November 1, 1950 was an unseasonably warm day in Washington, D.C. It's 2:20 p.m. at Blair House, the guesthouse of the White House complex where the Trumans are staying while their regular quarters are being remodeled. President Harry S. Truman is napping in a second-floor bedroom when two men in suits walk onto the property. They quickly separate.

    The smaller, Oscar Collazo, approaches the steps to Blair House where Donald Birdzell stands in uniform. Coming up behind the officer, Collazo draws his Walther P38, points it at Birdzell's back and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He struggles with the pistol, pounding on it with his other hand, and as the officer turns to face him, a shot is heard. Birdzell drops, shot through the right knee at a range of five feet.

    Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring and White House Police officer Joseph Davidson are standing near a guardhouse not far away, separated from the shooting scene by a wrought iron fence. They see the shooting, draw their weapons and open fire on Collazo. Davidson triggers his Official Police rapidly in double-action mode, while Boring cocks and carefully aims his snub-nose Detective Special. Maddeningly, their bullets seem to repeatedly strike the wrought iron fence, which saves Collazo from the projectiles. The attacker moves rapidly, spinning like a dervish, firing his 9mm wildly. Birdzell pulls himself to his feet, dragging the leg with the crippled knee behind him as he hobbles after Collazo, firing his own Colt Official Police as he goes.

    Boring, one of the best shots on the White House staff and fresh from a qualification where he shot an almost perfect score with .38 wadcutters in his Detective Special, holds a perfect sight picture on Collazo's hat and carefully squeezes off a single-action shot. The 158-grain Winchester round-nose lead bullet punches through the hat, strikes Collazo's skull, and ricochets away, tearing a nasty flesh wound in the scalp but not penetrating bone. Another bullet rips into Collazo's pectoral muscle, exits his chest, and goes into his right arm. This one has come from the 4"-barrel of Officer Davidson's service revolver.

    Running to the sound of the guns, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz joins the fight, but after his first shot realizes that he and the others don't have the best angle to engage the little man with the P38. Mroz sprints through an inside corridor, hoping to emerge from the building at a better angle for a clear shot.

    Collazo's slide locks back empty. Bleeding from several minor wounds, he sits down on the steps of Blair House, pulls a fresh magazine from a pocket and reloads.

    By now, the other conspirator has joined the fight. Griselio Torresola is armed with a Mauser-produced Luger in mint condition, and he knows how to use it. Approaching the small guardhouse where White House policeman Leslie Coffelt is seated, he whips out the 9mm and goes to a two-hand Isosceles position.

    Coffelt is a gun guy, a member of the pistol team and a life-long shooter. He goes for his O.P., but is too far behind the action/reaction curve. Torresola cracks off four fast shots, moving as he fires. The muzzle is perhaps a foot and a half away from the uniformed officer. Three full metal jacket German military surplus slugs tear into Coffelt's midsection, and a fourth rips his coat sleeve. He slumps backward into the chair in the guard booth. Torresola rushes onward, toward Blair House.

    He encounters Joe Downs, a White House policeman working plainclothes and on an errand to buy food for tonight's Blair House dinner. A gunfight survivor before he joined the force, Downs goes for his gun, but like Coffelt is too far behind the curve to catch up. Torresola's first 9mm slug strikes his hip, and Downs loses physical sensation and is no longer able to reach for his weapon. Torresola shoots him twice more, shoulder into chest and through the neck. Downs staggers helplessly from the scene as Torresola rushes on.

    He now spots Donald Birdzell, the uniformed officer his partner has wounded in the opening of the encounter. The cop is in the middle of the street, aiming his service revolver at Collazo. Torresola raises the Luger in his two-hand stance, carefully aims and presses the trigger.

    His shot strikes Birdzell square in the left knee. Shot in both knees now, and in agonizing pain, Birdzell can no longer stand. He tumbles to the pavement and momentarily loses consciousness. He is helpless to stop Torresola from finishing him off with a coup de grace, but the assassin is out of ammunition, the toggle locked open on his empty Luger. Torresola moves on. Like Collazo, he is carrying spare ammo, and as he moves he strips out the empty magazine and inserts a fresh one into his gleaming blue pistol. He's now at the edge of the Blair House steps, perhaps 20 feet from the guard booth where he shot Coffelt, has the benefit of some concealment from a large hedge.

    Each of the assassins has completed a reload of his semiautomatic pistol. It won't do either of them any good.

    His Walther reloaded, Oscar Collazo stands. He turns, appearing to be looking for fresh targets. But he doesn't raise the P38. Instead, he sways, pitches forward, and lands prostrate with a meaty smack, facedown. The first of the invaders to open fire is now out of the fight.

    Then comes the most dramatic moment of the battle, had anyone ever made a movie about the assault on Blair House, a movie director would have had a field day. At the moment he slips the fresh magazine into his Luger, Griselio Torresola is within 30 feet of the President of the United States.

    Startled out of his nap by the gunfire, clad in an undershirt, Harry Truman has come to the second-floor window of the bedroom where he has been resting. He looks down and can see Griselio Torresola, which means as soon as he looks in that direction, Torresola will be able to see him. When that happens, it will be easy for him to aim the Luger upward and assassinate the President.

    But it is not going to happen, because at this moment, one more shot echoes across the manicured grass of Blair House.

    A 158 grain .38 Special bullet burrows into the brain of Griselio Torresola. A witness sees him jerk like a man who has tripped, and then topple over, sprawling on the ground.

    Behind him, some 20 feet away, stands Leslie Coffelt, a tendril of smoke wafting from the muzzle of his Colt Official Police. He looks like a ghost, his face pallid because he's lost so much blood in the massive internal hemorrhage caused by Torresola's three bullets. Another lawman screams, "Don't shoot, Coffelt, he's down!" Coffelt stumbles back to the guard shack, literally on his last legs, and collapses again in his chair. The last of his consciousness is slipping away, but he never ran out of bravery. Mortally wounded, reanimated by courage and duty, he virtually came back from the dead to kill the man who murdered him, to kill the man who was about to assassinate the President.
    Coffelt's first and only shot is the last one of the gunfight. The deadly battle lasted no more than 40 seconds. Some 30 rounds have been fired. Torresola is dead, and Coffelt is dying.

    The Lessons

    Hunter and Bainbridge have done their homework. "American Gunfight" is laced with explanations of tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and the many other physio-psychological phenomena that hit people in shootouts.

    The attack on Blair House was really a home invasion. It was thwarted only because the defenders were armed and ready, their Colts loaded and strapped to their hips. Inside, one Secret Service agent raced to unlock the Thompson sub-machine gun maintained for such contingencies, but by the time it was out of its cabinet and up and ready, the gunfight was over. There are lessons here for more modest homes than Blair House, homes protected by their owners, not the elite of bodyguards.

    Stephen Hunter believes three key lessons emerge from the incident. One is police should carry powerful semiautomatic pistols. In 1950, there wasn't a single law-enforcement agency of any size issuing autoloaders to the rank and file. Not until 1967 would Illinois State Police break ground by adopting the S&W Model 39 9mm, and not until the 1980s would other major agencies follow suit. The quest for something more potent than 158-grain lead round nose .38 Special didn't begin in earnest until the 1960s.

    Hunter and Bainbridge wrote, "The second lesson is: shoot two-handed. The one-handed shooting techniques of the agents and officers turned out to be woefully inadequate. By contrast, Griselio, shooting with both hands on the gun, was able to operate with frightening efficiency. He took three men out of the fight in very few seconds, including the longest effective shot in the fight, the one that hit Don Birdzell in the second knee; only the incredible courage of Coffelt to get himself back in the fight, though fatally wounded, and to make a great shot prevented what could have been a catastrophe. It's even possible Les made that great shot two-handed himself, but it can't be stated with certainty as no witnesses saw that part of the fight. Meanwhile the Secret Service agents, firing one-handed, fired three shots--all were ineffective. Don Birdzell fired five shots one-handed; he missed with all five. Police officer Joe Davidson fired six shots one-handed and only one of them, believed to be a ricochet, was effective, and not immediately."

    The third point of the authors is firearms training needs to be practical and job related. Hunter doesn't feel the training of the time--oriented toward one-hand, single action bulls-eye shooting with light wadcutter ammunition was adequate. He's correct.
    Last edited: May 10, 2010
  2. wpage

    wpage Active Member

    Aug 25, 2009
    Excellent post. Great story. Never leave out the cards of fate or the hand of God.

  3. Terry_P

    Terry_P New Member

    Mar 23, 2008
    I enjoyed it as well so I ordered the book used from Amazon.