Puerto Rican Assassins Nearly Caught Pres. Harry Truman in His Underwear
Police and Secret Service intervened
When a pro-Independence insurrection broke out in Puerto Rico on Oct. 30, 1950, only limited news of the uprising filtered back to the United States, an incident characterized as a “disagreement between Puerto Ricans.” However two nationalists living in the Bronx, New York decided they needed to strike their own blow for the cause on the mainland United States.
Oscar Collazo was a good friend of Nationalist Leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who entrusted him with leadership of the New York branch of Puerto Rican Nationalists. He recruited his friend Griselio Torresola, whose sister Doris and brother Elio were heavily involved in the fighting in Puerto Rico, to join him on what he knew to be a suicide mission — an attempt on the life of the most prominent American imaginable.
Pres. Harry Truman had appointed the first native-born governor of Puerto Rico, and supported a constitutional referendum scheduled for 1952 over whether to transform Puerto Rico into a “free associated state.” However, nationalists perceived the referendum as merely cementing a colonial relationship with the United States, and thus felt that killing Truman might sabotage the transition.
On the morning of Oct. 30, 1950 Torresola and Campos took the train from New York down to Washington, D.C. While scoping out the terrain, they learned from a taxi driver that Truman was residing in the adjacent Blair House while the White House underwent renovations. That evening in their hotel, Griselio Torresola, a capable gunman, instructed the bookish Collazo in the use of a pistol.
Above — Oscar and Rosa Collazo. Photo via Wikipedia. At top — Collazo lies dead
Though unable to confirm Truman’s presence, they nonetheless proceeded with their attack on Nov. 1. At 2:00 P.M. the two approached the Blair House from opposite sides of Pennsylvania Ave clad in chalk stripe suits. Collazo walked up behind a policeman and pulled the trigger on his German army Walther P38 pistol—but there was a loud click as the inexperienced assassin discovered he had forgotten to chamber the round. Policeman Donald Birdzell whipped around, just as Collazo corrected his mistake and shot a bullet into the policeman’s knee.
Torresola, meanwhile, took aim at Leslie Coffelt, the Secret Service guard in the booth outside the house, and shot him three times in the chest with a nine-millimeter Luger, causing him to collapse. Meanwhile, Collazo lunged for the Blair House’s basement entrance. He was only a few feet away when he ran into another Secret Service agent who shot him in the chest, incapacitating him.
Torresola went on a rampage, shooting one police officer three times before the man ducked into the basement and locked the door, and then shooting out Birdzell’s other knee as the agent was about to take out a sprawled Collazo.
Truman, then taking a nap in his underwear, was roused by the commotion and peered out the window, seeing Torresola reloading his gun just 30 feet below him. A secret service agent shouted at him to duck.
Suddenly, a bleeding Coffelt somehow staggered out of his guard booth. The Virginian raised his pistol and shot at Torresola from 30 feet away. The bullet struck the nationalist in the head, killing him.
The gunfight ended in less than a minute. Coffelt collapsed and died of his wounds four hours later. Collazo, however, survived his injury.
Leslie Coffelt. Photo via Wikipedia
Though the amateurish assassination attempt came frighteningly close to success, Truman did not want the attack to escalate the conflict in Puerto Rico or lead to further reprisals. After Collazo was sentenced to death, Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison in July 1952.
That same year, the Puerto Rican constitutional referendum proceeded with 82 percent of Puerto Ricans voters favoring the change to a free-associated state. However, opponents of the referendum criticized that it offered neither statehood nor full independence as options.
Pedro Albizu continued to plot revolution even while in jail. In July 1952, he sent a letter from jail asking his supporters in Washington DC to launch three-pronged attacks on “strategic targets” in Washington, D.C. The message was received by Lolita Lebrón, a fiery feminist and socialist leader of the New York chapter of nationalists. She decided to simplify the plan to attack one target — the House of Representatives — and timed her assault to coincide with the inter-American conference in Venezuela.
On March 1, 1954 Lebron and three fellow nationalists—Irvin Flores, Miranda Cancel and Andres Figueroa—took the train from New York to Washington, D.C. then walked from Union Station to the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives. There they observed the session in progress and uttered a quick prayer.
Abruptly, Lebrón cried out Viva Puerto Rico Libre! while whipping out both a Puerto Rican flag and a pistol. The four sprayed 30 shots across the House floor with pistols. Lebrón maintained she shot into the ceiling, while one of her companion’s guns jammed, but the group still wounded five representatives before being overwhelmed by security. Remarkably, no one was killed, though representative Alvin Bentley from Michigan was gravely wounded. Lebron told her captors she had come to “die for Puerto Rico.”
Lebrón being led by police officers following her arrest. Photo via Wikipedia
As a result of the attack, Albizu—who had been pardoned—was reinterred in La Princesa prison in Puerto Rico, where he would remain for a decade. He died 11 years later, allegedly tortured with radiation. Collazo, Lebrón and her fellow conspirators remained in prison until 1979, when they were pardoned by Jimmy Carter. They all chose to return to their native island, where they were celebrated as heroes by independence supporters.
The nationalists bitterly resented repressive measures designed to suppress them politically, which included restrictions on free speech that violated the 1st Amendment. Indeed, in 1957 the Gag Law that had stirred them revolt was struck down on that very basis. While the Nationalist Party eventually disintegrated, various minor left-wing parties have continued to espouse independence in their platforms, and received support from Cuba and Venezuela.
Pro-independence armed radicals also persisted. A group called the Puerto Rican National Liberation Army staged a series of bombings and robberies in Chicago and New York between 1974 and 1980 that resulted in six deaths. Additionally, the Boricua Popular Army, or Macheteros, was active on the island conducting sporadic bombings and gun attacks between 1970 trough the 2000s, killing a few U.S. Navy personnel.
The Machetero’s most spectacular act, however was a raid by disguised infiltrators armed with satchel charges on Muniz Air National Guard Base in 1981, resulting in the destruction of eight A-7 Corsair attack jets and an F-104 Starfighter of the 198th Tactical Fighter Squadron.
Destroyed A-7D aircraft of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard at Muñiz Air National Guard Base on Jan. 12, 1981. Photo via Wikipedia
However, as the political situation liberalized in Puerto Ricodes, it appeared that independence did not have much domestic support. A 1965 plebiscite in which 66 percent of the eligible population participated allowed the public to vote either for full independence, continuation of the Commonwealth status, or accession to statehood. While 39 percent voted for statehood, only .6 percent were in favor of independence. In four subsequent votes which occurred in 1993, 1998, 2012 and 2017, independence never received more than five percent of the vote.
In 2006, Congress ended tax breaks benefiting businesses on Puerto Rico. This led to a vicious circle of rising unemployment, decreasing government revenue, increasing debt, and deteriorating government services for more than a decade. This was worsened by Puerto Rico’s inability to declare bankruptcy the way a U.S. state could, and by large-scale migration away from the island due to the crisis.
This may explain why support for statehood won majorities in votes held in 2012 and 2017, though critics allege that the ballots were unfairly phrased. Another referendum was scheduled to take place in October 2017 was cancelled due to Hurricane Maria. Statehood would also require cooperation from Congress. However, tactical political considerations might make accession of a 51st state difficult.
As the devastation wrought by the hurricane leaves the island in an even deeper state of crisis, the thorny issue of Puerto Rico’s political status seems likely to become even more acute. Jayuya, the epicenter of the pro-independence revolt 67 years ago, now suffers from a collapse of electricity, clean water and medical services.