washingtonpost.com
American Gunfight
A little-remembered shootout near Lafayette Square left President Harry Truman's life hanging in the balance

By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr.
Sunday, October 9, 2005

On November 1, 1950, the day that they planned to kill the president of the United States, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo dressed carefully. Oscar chose a blue shirt, a white handkerchief, a brown leather belt. His suit was blue and chalk-striped. He wore a pair of brown shoes of a brand called Crusader and, under this sober business or church attire, added one touch of color: green-and-orange socks.

Griselio was a little more subdued; his socks were gray. His suit was a lawyer's gray chalk-stripe; his shoes were black; his shirt was white; his tie was gray. He had a brown hat, from a company called Adams. His belt was cordovan, an in-between color meant to unify black, brown and gray. He wore Arrow underdrawers and undershirt.

Then they went sightseeing.

The grounds of the U.S. Capitol were just a short walk from their hotel. No, the trees weren't full of leafy grandeur, and by this time, late in fall, the grass had lost its lush greenness, but still the grounds of the old place were majestic. So the two walked them.

They were Puerto Rican nationalists, animated by the dream of a free and independent island nation. They were also radical operatives, assassins on the hunt, and, in their own view, sacred warriors facing sure death. Yet they were out-of-towners who had a chance to experience a thrilling visit to a thrilling, world-famous locality, and with an hour or so to waste, they couldn't resist the temptation.

Weren't they touched by the sense of tradition and history; weren't they impressed by the monumental greatness; didn't the expanse of the patriotic message reach them? How could it not? They, too, were American citizens.

But there's another possibility as well. Perhaps Griselio and Oscar looked upon the Capitol as an exercise in hypocrisy and used its beauty as a way to rev themselves up emotionally for the action they were about to initiate. Perhaps everything they saw offended them, seemed cheap and tawdry, enraged them: In the dome they saw not inclusion but immense weight, the weight of empire. In the trees and gardens, they saw camouflage of the empire's true meaning. In the vast stairways that lead up, up and up to the grand mall entrance, they saw the vast distance between their humble, tiny selves at bottom, representative of their humble, tiny island civilization, and the elite rulers so far above them, encased in marble.

After an hour examining and interpreting the centerpiece of the American legislative system, they hailed a taxi and headed to the White House, where the president lived.

It was the cabdriver who said to them, No, no, he don't live there. See, they're rebuilding the White House.

He took them for exactly what they appeared to be. Two slightly foreign tourists, well-dressed, serene in manner and curious in disposition, in for a visit to the capital of the greatest country in the world.

Griselio and Oscar were slapped in the face by the truth of his statement.

Outside the cab stood the official mansion of the president of the United States, behind its wrought-iron fence and its elaborate ceremonial landscaping. There was even a steam shovel outside. The building was all shell. The insides had been torn out, and essentially a new house was being constructed within the facade of the old. This engineering necessity had been a long time coming, as the old mansion degenerated further each month, but Harry Truman, with his customary brio and decisiveness, put it into operation. He and his wife, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, had moved out almost two years earlier.

The driver then helpfully pointed across the street to Blair House, as the combined Blair-Lee mansions were known. Griselio and Oscar confronted for the first time in their lives the site of their destiny -- just three hours or so before it became their destiny.

They paid the cabbie, got out on the far side of the street, in front of the ornate Executive Office Building, and, amid the hundreds of hurrying midday Washingtonians, looked at what lay before them, across the busy street.

For weeks afterward, the attack plan the two men invented there on the spot would be condemned by the press and other commentators as utterly insane. It would fit neatly into stereotypes of screwball Latino revolutionaries with more guts than sense, who go in with guns blazing like cartoon characters, the whole thing skewing, as time passed, into an opera bouffe of stupidity and waste. Yet in retrospect, the plan was quite elegant. They would approach from different directions down Pennsylvania Avenue--Oscar from the east, Griselio from the west--timed to reach the outer limits of the Blair House frontage simultaneously. Oscar would pass the first guardhouse and, when he reached the Blair House steps, wheel and shoot the guard at the foot of the steps. Simultaneously, Griselio would fire on the guard in the western guardhouse, then offer covering fire, engaging the men in the eastern guardhouse. This made sense; he was the better shot. Under cover of Griselio's fusillade, Oscar would vault the steps to Blair, break through the screen door, and shoot whoever was inside. Total time of operation: three seconds. Griselio would follow him in, but Oscar would lead the way upstairs. The whole point of the plan was to overcome the defenses with a stunning blast of firepower, disorient and dis-coordinate the response, then hunt the president down in Blair. It was Oscar's job to clear the way. Almost certainly the two assassins would have been in the house before any waiting Secret Service agent would have time to unlimber weapons, which included a Thompson submachine gun in the weapons cabinet. Possibly Oscar would have died there, going down shooting, taking that man with him. That was his job. But the way would have been opened for Griselio. He didn't know that Harry Truman was sleeping in his underwear on the second floor, just a few feet from the head of the Blair House stairs he would have climbed, but he would have encountered him in seconds, and done his job.

oscar and griselio were true believers in their Puerto Rican-ness, men who had given themselves over to a leader and a movement, and for whom no rational argument against had any meaning. Both were committed members of Puerto Rican revolutionary Don Pedro Albizu Campos's Nationalist Party, and both knew and loved Albizu Campos himself. Though neither had criminal records in the United States or Puerto Rico, both had been exposed to revolutionary violence. Revolution wasn't romantic to them, or abstract: It was street action, violent, harsh, irreversible.

For years afterward, the Secret Service believed and tried to prove a deeper conspiracy, a larger conspiracy -- that as an act of political policy the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico ordered the Puerto-Rican-born and -raised Griselio to commit the deed and that he recruited Oscar. And, of course, what is meant by the party is the man. The government believed that Pedro Albizu Campos, as part of his revolutionary strategy for 1950, ordered two assassinations, one targeting the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Munoz Marin, and the other the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman. These two events, in concert with the proclamation of a Free Republic of Puerto Rico in Jayuya, and cities in flames across the island, would have been the first step toward the long and brutal war of revolutionary liberation. The assassination attempt in Puerto Rico and the insurrection in several cities had actually begun October 30, prompting Griselio's action. But by November 3, the fighting in Puerto Rico had ceased, and the revolution was a total failure.

Oscar and Griselio, on what they believed to be the last day -- the last hour, the last minutes of their lives -- got out of the cab at the corner of 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue at about 2:12 p.m., a block to the east of Blair House.

Griselio was 25; Oscar was 36. The unemployed Griselio, who had immigrated from Puerto Rico in 1948, was handsome and beloved by two women, two daughters and his family; Oscar, who had first come to America in the 1930s, was a family man with a reputation for self-control. Griselio had physical gifts and was quick and daring; Oscar was a sedentary fellow who loved best of all to settle in with a good encyclopedia after a long day shining handbag frames at a buffing wheel in a New York factory. But neither was mentally disturbed. They were simply profound believers. They were animated by a cause so passionate they were driven to face death, and neither of them flinched.

Griselio was probably the more aggressive psychologically. He would have had physical confidence. He had trained himself well. As far as the actual mechanics and physics of the act they'd planned, he was the most adept. He was younger, probably hotter-headed, and lacking an older man's wisdom, more committed by passion.

Oscar always played his cards close to his vest. At this moment he gave his life up to God and to what he viewed as his country. He cannot have been confident; the gun was still largely mysterious to him, and he must have had great anxiety about operating it with the necessary efficiency. But did he think of his wife, of his two stepdaughters, of his own daughter and what the effect of his actions would be upon them? Did he think of how they would get along without a breadwinner, how they would be stigmatized here in America, where they'd chosen to live? Perhaps to calm nerves or perhaps for sound tactical reasons, Oscar and Griselio decided to take another casual stroll by Blair House. This was for last-minute checks, to see if anything was radically different from before. The inspection produced immediate results: Nothing was different. There'd been no alert; nobody was on special guard; it was the same: four men outside, three in uniforms, one in a suit, paying attention yet also in the numbness that stationary duty necessarily produces. Griselio and Oscar believed they had surprise and shock on their side.

They returned to the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania. It was time. No other thing was left to do.

According to their plan, they separated. Griselio crossed Pennsylvania, turned west, passed in front of the Treasury Building, the White House and the Executive Office Building. He very carefully walked at a normal pace, so as not to attract attention.

The street that separates Lafayette Square from the block on which Blair House is situated is Jackson Place. Oscar crossed it. As he approached Blair House, he could see his compatriot ahead. Griselio had reached 17th Street, crossed it, passed by the rococo Court of Claims, and was fast approaching the western guardhouse just 135 feet away.

Adjusting again, Oscar sped up, and his little feet ate up the distance. In seconds he was by the guardhouse where two men -- one in uniform; one in suit, a bow tie and sunglasses -- chatted amiably. Then he was at the canopied base of the stairway.

Did a signal pass between him and Gris-elio, now just 35 feet away and edging up to the western guardhouse? Eyes lifted, a wink, a nod, just a glimpse of human eye contact?

Oscar, just inside the canopied stairway to Blair House, turned to face the back of a large man in a police uniform. There was an awful moment of awkwardness. One can imagine the hammering of Oscar's heart, the heaviness of the fact that he was leaving, at that instant, the known world far behind. He reached into his jacket, his fingers closed on the butt of the Walther P.38, and he pulled it out, fumbling to do the right thing -- let's see, cock, not cock, what about the safety, ah, let's see, have I got it right? -- and thrust it awkwardly at the broad blue back of the cop, hearing but not understanding a sharp click that made the gun shudder ever so slightly.

Then Oscar Collazo pulled the trigger. White House police officer Donald Birdzell heard the loud, metallic clicking and turned to see a small man in a suit struggling with a pistol.

Oscar continued to push and twist things on the gun. Imagine the kaleidoscope of imagery in his dazzled mind. But very quickly and by utter chance, he finally did something right. He somehow recovered enough, or by sheer luck, pushed the safety up. Now he was back where he started; the gun was live. He just didn't know it. He drew it to his chest and like a stern father began to punish it by administering a beating. He was actually seen standing there, the gun clutched to his bosom in his right hand, and with his left he was striking it. And the gun cooperated. It fired and delivered a bullet into Birdzell's knee.

Oscar had work to do, and he set out to do it. He fired again at the moving Birdzell he had injured. He must have fired quickly. This second shot must have surprised him, also. That's because the action of the first shot, in the semiautomatic pistol, sets up the action of all subsequent shots. Where the first was long and grinding, a 20-pound pull similar to dragging a rake across gravel, the second and subsequent shots are much lighter and shorter. So the P.38 must have seemed to fire itself, and Oscar's shot at even a slow-moving target like Birdzell missed and sailed across Pennsylvania Avenue, where by the grace of God it did not strike anybody but instead just disappeared.

But Oscar was now under fire himself, from another direction. Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring, whose nickname was Toad, and White House police officer Joseph Davidson had joined the fight.

Toad went from standing there to gunfighter in about three seconds. The Detective Special was out, riding from the hip holster up in his big hand, and he found the hammer with that big thumb of his, and rocked it back to full cock. He hunkered down slightly behind the guardhouse and was aware of Joe Davidson maneuvering beside him, his gun also out. But Toad wasn't thinking as the gun came up and he hunted for a target through his dark glasses. Well-trained, disciplined, and cool as ice, he had two objectives: to shoot to kill, and to kill the right guy, not any innocent bystander.

Where's the little guy? The vagaries of movement had suddenly removed Oscar from visibility. He'd turned, dipped, and Toad couldn't see him through the blur of vegetation and the mesh of iron bars of the fence between them.

BAMBAMBAMBAM!

That was the sound of Davidson firing just to his right, fast, and the noise, hammering against Toad's right eardrum from about a foot's distance, left a ring that would last for hours. It should have disoriented Toad. But it didn't. He was looking for a target, and suddenly the little fellow in the hat with the P.38 juked toward the stairway of Blair and through the fence and around a tree and was briefly visible.

Toad put the front sight square on his head, went rock-steady for just a second, and pulled the trigger.

Oscar was too busy shooting to notice the bullet that scalped him. He just kept it up, best as he could. Not a trained shooter and not a man bred to or hungry for violence, he was simply yanking the now shortened trigger and experiencing for the first time the dynamics of the cycling semi-automatic pistol and the stout recoil of German steel-jacketed ammunition.

All three guards at the eastern sector of Blair House were zeroed in on Oscar, who was himself in a mad dance of shooting and moving. Toad and Joe Davidson crouched behind the uncertain cover of the wooden guardhouse, trying to get a better shooting angle toward Oscar. Donald Birdzell had reached the end of his crab walk out on to Pennsylvania Avenue, between the trolley tracks, and had turned and opened fire on his target.

But at some point when Oscar stopped to reload, or immediately upon completion, his consciousness seemed to have noted what his body had ignored: He had been hit in the chest.

Upon that recognition -- he saw a smear of crimson stain spreading across his fine blue shirt, certainly felt a sudden burning sensation in that chest, running like a furrow across it, and finally noted a general achiness in his right arm, particularly inside the biceps -- it occurred to him that he was about to die.

He went down. He landed on the sidewalk just next to the first step of Blair, face flat on the cold cement, the gun still in his right hand. His hat was on, but the collision with the ground somewhat dislodged it, so it was held atilt, canted slightly loose by the pressure of the step against his head. He looked very much like a fallen banker or senior law partner or investment counselor.

Political scientist James Clarke classifies Griselio and Oscar as classic Type One assassins, meaning purely political creatures, who never heard voices or received instructions from God or yearned for some form of human acknowledgment. If their actions can be explained, and possibly they can't, it can be said that Oscar and Griselio were men who were not afraid to die, not because they were sure of entry into an afterlife, but because their mission was at the center of their definition of political manhood. Their lives were nothing next to the immensity and nobility of the cause. That's what made them so intense, so passionate, so seemingly out of reach of normal psychology. And that's what made them so dangerous.

Griselio reached the guardhouse at the western limit of the Blair-Lee property. According to one witness, he removed his Luger pistol, gripped it with two hands, peeked in the westernmost window at the officer inside to mark his target, then stepped around the box into the doorway of the little structure to face the man.

He pulled the trigger four times, hitting White House police officer Leslie Coffelt three times. The fourth bullet grazed the sleeve of Coffelt's tunic. Griselio kept on moving, his progress taking him clear of the booth, as Coffelt began to slide down his chair.

Griselio came around the guardhouse and immediately encountered another target. This was Joseph Downs, the classic wrong place-wrong time guy. He was a White House police officer in civilian clothes. He never had a chance, either. Griselio hit him three times, too -- in the hip, in the shoulder and in the left side of his neck.

Griselio then turned to the sound of shots, to the south. There he saw the wounded Birdzell clumsily aiming his third or fourth shot at Oscar. Griselio didn't hesitate. The gun fired, and he hit Birdzell -- in the other knee. Birdzell went down.

Then the toggle locked back, signifying an empty gun. But for now, reloading, Griselio stood clear and unseen by any standing men. The only men who'd seen him were down. And Leslie Coffelt lay in his chair, dying.

But what was happening upstairs at Blair House to the man all were pledged to save or kill?

Griselio reached into his coat pocket for another magazine. All he had to do was insert it, give a little tweak to the locked toggle of the Luger, which would fly forward, depositing a new steel-jacketed 9mm bullet into the chamber.

And, at about that time, Harry Truman was at a second floor window of Blair House.

Griselio was 31 feet from that window. He was standing about 17 feet from Lee House and had a substantial angle into that particular window so that he could have seen anyone standing in it. It is not known if the president leaned out, therefore making himself a better target, or if he simply stood still, and presented a thinner, smaller target. It is not known if Griselio saw Truman or if Truman got there a few seconds later. It is not known if Griselio meant to stay there, having given up on his idea of penetrating the house; it is not known if he looked up at the right moment.

What is known, indisputably, is that Griselio had a clear shot at the window, and the president was either there or was within seconds of getting there.

Secret Service Agent Vince Mroz had run from the Blair House office, ducked out of Blair House and taken a shot at Oscar, and was running down Blair's basement hallway to get another angle on Oscar from the Lee House doorway. He was the only law enforcement agent still up with a chance of preventing Griselio from doing what Griselio had come to do.

Griselio was young, tense, loose, hot, dangerous, full of hormones, riding on a wave of victory, feeling powerful and triumphant. Griselio was a soldier on a mission. It would have taken but a flick of the eyes, a recognition of the possibility, a few more seconds, and the Alben Barkley administration would have begun.

Griselio stood unnoticed at the stairway to Lee House. He'd shot three men, but now he was out of ammo. He had to get the new mag in, and with his fast, sure fingers, this was not a problem. Griselio had the magazine almost into the gun when the bullet struck him two inches above the ear on a slight upward angle and rocketed through the outer portions of his brain. He was dead instantly. There was blood everywhere, and that was how they found him.

It was the dying Les Coffelt, pulling himself from his chair as blood leaked from his chest and consciousness from his brain, who shot him.

Oscar, whose wounds turned out to be nonfatal, was taken to Emergency Hospital under arrest.

The headline in The Washington Post three days after the shooting said it succinctly enough: "U.S. to Seek Quick Trial of Collazo for Murder." One wonders now at the haste: Perhaps the point was to make the larger statement that no one could assault the president of the United States without facing immediate and total consequences. Or perhaps the strategy was to get the quick conviction and death sentence against Oscar, then leverage that against him in an attempt to turn him on the issue of a larger conspiracy. Nevertheless, the entire affair was so rushed that the investigation somehow never caught up with the prosecution, and the prosecution never cast a wider net.

By November 8, 1950, a 22-citizen grand jury had been convened. On that day, the government produced 12 witnesses to give their versions of the shooting, including a "surprise witness," John Gavounas, 53, who, in the newspaperese of the era, was the "Cabbie [Who] Says He Took Gunmen to Death Site." Ultimately, 23 witnesses testified in the three-day hearing.

Oscar was indicted November 10 on first-degree murder charges.

FBI and Secret Service documents reveal a wide-ranging but ultimately frustrating investigation, as suspect after suspect claims to have not known Oscar well enough, not known Griselio at all, and to have been utterly surprised by what the two men did, and themselves to no longer be interested in Puerto Rican Nationalist politics. The investigation turned up no documents to demonstrate a wider conspiracy, and one tantalizing nugget -- a report in a November 8 Earl Wilson column in the New York Post that, according to an anonymous phone call, Puerto Rican Nationalist Party elders in New York had held a lottery to pick the shooters -- appeared to be unfounded, at least undocumentable. (That rumor has persisted for years.)

Meanwhile, Oscar refined his story several times in early interrogations until he finally found the version he liked the best: He and Griselio, who barely knew each other, met on the night of October 30 at the Willis Avenue Bridge in New York and went forward from there, with an idea of going to Washington to "create a demonstration," by which they meant to attract the world's attention to what was going on in Puerto Rico. He refused absolutely to acknowledge any deeper conspiracy. He refused to plead insanity. He did what he did because he believed in it, and he would face the consequences.

Oscar Collazo was convicted in March of 1951. His death sentence was commuted by Truman a few weeks before it was to be carried out in 1952, because, Truman said, he didn't want to provide the Puerto Rican Nationalists with a martyr. Oscar served a total of 29 years in prison, most at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., where he was a model inmate: mastering languages, reading voluminously, corresponding with family members and friends, and helping other inmates. He would never renounce his Nationalist beliefs -- not once -- before his death in 1994. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter pardoned Oscar along with the other Nationalists in U.S. jails, and Oscar went back to Puerto Rico a hero.

This article is based on interviews, government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and newspaper accounts. It is excerpted from American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman -- and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr., to be published this month by Simon & Schuster.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company