On November 1, 1950, US President Harry S. Truman survived an assassination attempt thanks to the work of the Secret Service, and the ultimate sacrifice of a White House Police Officer.
The attack occurred at the Blair House, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the president was staying during the White House reconstruction that occurred from 1948-1950. (The White House had actually been deemed unsafe for occupancy by structural engineers in 1948) On October 30, 1950 there had been an independence revolt in several cities on Puerto Rico. This was led by members of the minority Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico. As the failed uprising petered out, two National Party members, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, left their homes in New York City and headed to Washington. They wanted to bring attention to the cause of Puerto Rican independence. They thought the assassination of the President, although certainly suicidal, would be the best way to support their cause.
Torresola approached Blair House from the side while Collazo walked up behind Capitol police officer, Donald Birdzell, who was standing in front of the building. Collazo tried to shoot Birdzell in the back, but had failed to chamber a round in his pistol. Collazo quickly chambered a round and fired the weapon just as Birdzell was turning to face him. Birdzell was shot in the knee. After hearing the gunshots, Secret Service agent Vincent Mroz stepped out of the Blair House opened fire on Collazo. Mroz stopped Collazo with a bullet to the chest while he was on the entrance steps. Collazo survived and was arrested.
Meanwhile, Torresola approached a guard booth on the side of the Blair House where he shot White House Police Officer Leslie Coffelt four times at close range and mortally wounding him. Coffelt, now slumped against the side of a guard booth was able to return fire and shot Torresola once in the head, killing him instantly. Officer Coffelt then passed out and never regained consciousness, dying four hours later. President Truman, who was in the residence, looked out the window as the carnage unfolded. The President, a World War I veteran, later stated that he was not afraid during the attack, exclaiming that he “had [already] been shot at by professionals [i.e. German soldiers].”
Leslie Coffelt was the only member of the White House Police force to be killed in the line of duty. The agency is a part of the Secret Service and is now called the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service. If you visit the Blair House today, there is a plaque dedicated to the memory of this brave officer.