Peoples and Nations

Oscar Collazo: Truman's Would-Be Assassin

Oscar Collazo: Truman's Would-Be Assassin

The following article on Oscar Collazo is an excerpt from Mel Ayton's Hunting the President: Threats, Plots, and Assassination Attempts-From FDR to Obama.


During his presidency Truman was the target of Puerto Rican nationalists. The president was staying at Blair House, across the street from the White House which was under renovation. Around 2:15 p.m., November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, thirty-seven-year-old Oscar Collazo and twenty-four-year-old Griselio Torresola, approached Blair House from opposite directions, determined to assassinate President Truman. Oscar Collazo was armed with a Walther P-38 and Torresola with a Luger, both 9 mm pistols. Collazo later said he and Torresola “just took a chance” that Truman would be in Blair House when they attacked. In fact, the president was upstairs taking a nap.

Torresola went to the guard booth on the west side of the Blair House entrance, drew his gun, and shot White House police officer Leslie Coffelt at point-blank range three times.

Oscar Collazo, meanwhile, arrived at the east booth and attempted to walk up the steps to the front door. Seeing a police officer blocking his way, Collazo pulled out his gun, but being unfamiliar with guns, he did not realize that the safety was on. When he eventually turned it off, he sent a bullet into the leg of Officer Donald T. Birdzell.

Inside Blair House, Secret Service agent Stewart Stout snapped up a Thompson automatic submachine gun and waited for the would-be assassin. Collazo turned to run up the remaining steps to the front door of Blair House but was caught in a gunfight with

White House police officer P. Davidson and Secret Service agent Floyd Boring, who were at the east booth. Pausing only to reload, he was finally brought down by a shot from Boring that hit him in the chest.

At the other side of Blair House, Torresola shot another officer before trying to rescue Oscar Collazo. The mortally wounded Coffelt, lying on the floor of the guardhouse, aimed his gun at Torresola and fired. The bullet hit the assassin in the head, killing him instantly. When agents searched Torresola's corpse, they found a letter from Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, which read: “My dear Griselio, if for any reason it should be necessary for you to assume the leadership of the nationalist movement in the United States, you will do so without hesitation of any kind. We are leaving to your high sense of patriotism and sane judgment everything regarding this matter. Cordially yours.” His compatriot Collazo survived his wounds and was arrested.

In 1961, Truman recalled what he had been doing when Oscar Collazo and Torresola attempted to kill him. “I remember it all very well,” Truman said, “I was taking my afternoon nap as usual, in preparation for going to Arlington Cemetery to dedicate a monument to the late Sir John Dill. We heard sounds from Pennsylvania Avenue that sounded like backfires. I looked out and said to Mrs. Truman, 'Somebody is shooting at our guards.'… I looked out… and saw a policeman lying badly wounded in the street. I stuck my head out the window and asked, 'Who's that?' A Secret Service man said, 'Get back, Mr. President.' Another Secret Service man, a fine shot, killed one of the assassins. The bullet went in one ear and came out the other and that disposed of his case.”

According to Truman, the assassins had acted prematurely, “I don't know what those damn fools were thinking of,” Truman said. “If they had waited about 10 minutes Mrs. Truman and I would have been walking down the front steps of Blair House and there's no telling what might have happened. Of course, they were both drunk. Secret Service head of detail Jim Rowley told me so.” Truman also said he was taken to task by Rowley for “sticking my head out the window. He asked me severely, 'Mr. President, when you were in France and the air raid alarm sounded did you stick your head out?' I said, 'No, Jim, I guess I didn't.'” Agent Boring, however, said Truman never appeared at the window. “They had President Truman coming to the window upstairs,” he said, “and I'm supposed to have waved and told him to go back. But he never showed up there… what happened was that Howard G. Crim came to the front door, and stuck his head out. I said, 'Get the hell back in there.'”

At his trial Oscar Collazo claimed the “gunplay” was not an actual attempt to kill the president but a “demonstration” designed to shock Americans into giving Puerto Ricans their independence. He said the two men did not intend to kill anybody, though he also confessed that Pedro Albizu Campos-leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist party, which had received only five thousand votes out of the hundreds of thousands cast in recent Puerto Rican elections- had ordered them to kill Truman. He said there were to be four assassins, but only he and Torresola showed up.

On March 7, 1951, Collazo was found guilty and sentenced to death. He eagerly looked forward to martyrdom and was annoyed when his execution was stayed. He became enraged when in June 1952 President Truman commuted his death sentence to life in prison. Truman said he “was sentenced to die but I commuted the sentence to life imprisonment because that was the law in Puerto Rico-they didn't have capital punishment there then.”