Leslie Coffelt


Leslie Coffelt

Leslie William Coffelt (August 15, 1910–November 1, 1950), was an officer of the White House Police, now known as the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division, who was killed in the line of duty.

Coffelt was killed by Griselio Torresola during the Truman assassination attempt, in which Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate U.S. President Harry S. Truman while he was residing in the Blair House on November 1, 1950. Though mortally wounded by three bullets, Coffelt killed Torresola with a single shot to the head.

Background

Coffelt was born to Will Coffelt and Effie Keller in the Shenandoah Valley town of Oranda, Virginia. As a boy, he was called "Etts," since his younger sister could not pronounce the name "Leslie." His siblings were Harry, Hollis, Norman, and Mildred, called "Midge."

As a boy, Coffelt grew up hunting and handling firearms. Coffelt was the second in his family to graduate from high school, and he was described by those who knew him as an expert sharpshooter. He was a quiet, good-humored man who was well-liked by everyone.

In 1928, Coffelt left Oranda to look for a job in Washington, D.C., and became a police officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in 1929. He was assigned to Precinct 3, which ran down the length of K Street.

In 1936, he resigned to become a building technician. He met Chessie Elinor Morgan of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, who was training to become a nurse. Coffelt and Morgan were married on October 5, 1937, in Prince George's County, Maryland, and they moved into an apartment in Washington.

In 1941, Coffelt returned to the Metropolitan Police, and in 1942 he requested and was awarded a transfer to the White House Police Force. In 1942, Coffelt was drafted and assigned to E Company, 300th Infantry Regiment, United States Army. Coffelt served less than two years and never made it overseas; the Army gave him a medical discharge. In 1945, he returned to duty with the White House Police Force.

Truman assassination attempt

On November 1, 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists and independence advocates Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, who were angry with the treatment of Puerto Rico by the United States, attempted to enter the President's residence at the Blair-Lee House and assassinate him. At the time, the White House was under renovation for major structural problems.

Torresola walked up Pennsylvania Avenue from the west side while his partner, Oscar Collazo, engaged Secret Service agents and White House policemen with his Walther P38 pistol from the east. Torresola approached a guard booth at the west corner of the Blair-Lee House, and noted an officer, Private Leslie Coffelt, sitting inside.

Torresola, in a double handed, isosceles shooting stance, quickly pivoted from left to right around the opening of the booth. Coffelt was taken completely by surprise, as tourists often stopped at the box to ask for information. Torresola fired four shots from his 9 mm German Luger semi-automatic pistol at close range at Coffelt. Three of the shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, and the fourth went through his policeman's tunic. Coffelt slumped down in his chair, mortally wounded.

Torresola then shot plainclothes White House policeman Joseph Downs, who staggered to the basement door, opened it, slid in, and then slammed the door behind him, denying Torresola entry into the Blair-Lee House, so Torresola turned his attention to the shoot-out between his partner, Collazo, and several other law enforcement officers. Torresola noted wounded policeman Donald Birdzell aiming at Collazo from the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Torresola aimed and shot Birdzell in the left knee from a distance of approximately 40 feet. Torresola realized he was out of ammunition. He stood to the immediate left of the Blair House steps while he reloaded.

At the same time, the mortally-wounded Coffelt staggered out of his guard booth, leaned against it, and aimed his revolver at Torresola, who was approximately 30 feet away. Coffelt squeezed the trigger and fired, hitting Torresola two inches above the ear on a slight upward angle and blowing out a portion of his brain. Torresola was killed instantly. Coffelt would succumb to his wounds in a hospital four hours later.

If Torresola had gone up the steps and entered the door of the Blair-Lee House, he would have been met by a Secret Service Agent with a Thompson submachine gun. This was the very last line of defense for the President, there being no other immediately available armed personnel besides this agent and officer Coffelt.

Aftermath

In a letter to his cousin, Ethel Noland, dated November 17, 1950, President Truman wrote:

"I'm sorry I didn’t get to talk to you and" (cousin) "Nellie at the dinner or after it. But I'm really a prisoner now…

"Everybody is much more worried and jittery than I am. I've always thought that if I could get my hands on a would-be assassin he'd never try it again. But I guess that’s impossible. The grand guards who were hurt in the attempt on me didn’t have a fair chance. The one who was killed was just cold bloodedly murdered before he could do anything. But his assassin did not live but a couple of minutes – one of the S.S." (Secret Service) "men put a bullet in one ear and it came out the other. I stuck my head out the upstairs window to see what was going on. One of the guards yelled, ‘Get back.’ I did, then dressed and went downstairs. I was the only calm one in the house. You see, I’ve been shot at by experts and unless your name’s on the bullet you needn’t be afraid – and that of course you can’t find out, so why worry."

"The S.S. chief said to me, ‘Mr. President, don’t you know that when there’s an Air Raid Alarm you don’t run out and look up, you go for cover.’ I saw the point but it was over then."

"Hope it won’t happen again. They won’t let me go walking or even cross the street on foot. I say ‘they’ won’t, but it causes them so much anguish that I conform – a hard thing for a Truman to do as you know, particularly when he could force them to do as he wants. But I want no more guards killed.”"Coffelt's wife, Cressie E. Coffelt, was later asked by the President and the Secretary of State to go to Puerto Rico, where she received condolences and expressions of sorrow from various Puerto Rican leaders and crowds. Mrs. Coffelt responded with a speech absolving the island's people of blame for the acts of Collazo and Torresola.

Oscar Collazo was sentenced to death, which was later commuted by Truman to a life sentence. His sentence was commuted to time served by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, Collazo was released and went back to Puerto Rico. He died in 1994.

Private Coffelt was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on November 4, 1950 in Section 17, Site 17719-59. His epitaph reads, "White House Policeman: Who Gave His Life In Defense Of The President Of The United States During An Assassination Attempt At The Blair House, Washington, D.C."

A plaque at the Lee-Blair House commemorates Coffelt's sacrifice, heroism, and fidelity to his duty and his country. The day room for the U.S. Secret Service's Uniformed Division at the Blair-Lee House is named for Coffelt as well.

References

*Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr., "American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill Harry Truman - And The Shoot-Out That Stopped It", Simon & Schuster (2005), ISBN 0-7432-6068-6.

*"“Off The Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman”", Edited by Robert H. Ferrell, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1980, pp. 198-99

External links

* [http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/lcoffelt.htm Arlington Cemetery Information]


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