It was late afternoon of a warm spring day. Vice-President Harry S. Truman had just finished listening to a Senate debate. He was given a telephone message, asking him to get to the White House as soon as possible. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died at Warm Springs, Georgia. That evening, April 12, 1945, at 7:09 P.M., Harry S. Truman took the oath of office as the 33rd president of the United States.

The end of World War II was in sight, but American forces were still fighting in Europe and the Pacific. The people at home were supplying the needs of their own fighting men and helping their Allies at a total cost of nearly 90 billion dollars a year. An atomic bomb had been developed. It was the most powerful weapon the world had ever known. President Truman knew that he must decide whether or not to use the bomb in the war with Japan.

Victory and peace brought their problems too: the new Administration faced questions of how to deal with the defeated nations and how to help newly freed peoples. They had to share in planning a world organization of nations to enforce peace. On the home front there was the gigantic task of re-establishing the nation's peacetime economy.

Harry S. Truman, the man who was to guide the United States through this critical period, was born May 8, 1884, at Lamar, Missouri. He was the son of John Anderson Truman, a cattle trader, and Martha Young Truman. Shortly after Harry's birth, the Truman family moved to nearby Independence, Missouri, not far from Kansas City. There Harry attended grade school and high school.

After graduation from high school Harry tried for an appointment to West Point but was rejected because of poor eyesight. Having no money to pay his way through college, he took a job in a Kansas City drugstore. At the same time he joined the Missouri National Guard.

After a brief stay in the drugstore, Truman became a clerk at the Kansas City Star. He then tried working as a timekeeper for a railroad construction gang and a clerk in a Kansas City bank. Five years after he had left high school, Truman was tired of city life. He returned to his father's farm and worked there for the next ten years.

Truman was still a farmer when the United States entered World War I. As a member of the Missouri National Guard, he was called for a short period of training at the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Okla. He went overseas as a Captain with the 35th Division and commanded Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery in the St-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. After the war, he was commissioned a Major in the Field Artillery Reserve.

On June 28, 1919, Truman married Bess Wallace of Independence. They had been childhood sweethearts. A daughter, Mary Margaret, was born to the Trumans on Feb. 17, 1924. After his marriage, Truman invested all his savings into a Kansas City haberdashery. The business was successful for two years, then failed during the depression in 1922. Truman and his business partner, Eddie Jacobson, faithfully repaid their creditors, though it took them the next 12 years to do so.

At the Democratic National Convention in June, 1944, a lively contest developed between several candidates for the Vice-Presidential nomination. Most conspicuous were Henry Wallace, who had the support of the radical wing of the Democratic Party, and James Byrnes, who represented the Conservative wing. Naming Truman as the compromise candidate broke the deadlock. Truman at first flatly refused to take the nomination because he wanted to remain in the Senate. However, Roosevelt was insistent, and Truman finally agreed. As vice-president, Truman had little to do with shaping America's policies at home or abroad. Roosevelt seldom consulted with him. As a result, when Roosevelt suddenly died, Truman, as President, faced many problems. Presidential aides and others did their best to help him, and Truman learned quickly.

Two weeks after he became President, Truman learned of the top-secret project to develop an atomic bomb. On July 16, 1945, he was told a successful atom bomb test had been made at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Truman consulted with his aides to decide whether the bomb should be used against Japan. An invasion of Japan was being planned and they estimated that if the bomb worked, it would save a quarter of a million American lives. Truman suggested that the United States warn Japan that, if it did not surrender, the bomb would be used. They did so, but Japan refused to yield. On August 6, 1945, the atom bomb exploded over Hiroshima, shattering three fifths of the city. On August 10, Japan sued for peace.

The election of November 2, 1948, was the most dramatic political upset in the nation's history. Truman was the first Democratic president to be elected without the "solid South." He won 28 states and 303 Electoral votes. The Democrats also won control of Congress.

On June 25, 1950, war broke out in Korea. This was a great personal blow to President Truman. He had often said he wanted more than anything else to be regarded by Historians as a President who brought peace to the world. Truman ordered the United States military forces to support the United Nations "police action" in Korea. On December 16 he declared a state of national emergency to help prepare the United States for a possible "all-out" war with Communism.

In the midst of these problems an amendment was added to the Constitution — the 22nd ammendment which limited a President to two full terms or to a total of ten years if he had served part of an unexpired term. The amendment was passed in 1947 by a Republican Congress, mostly as a reaction against Franklin D. Roosevelt's four Presidential election victories. It has been argued that this controversial amendment served to weaken a President's effectiveness during the second term, because the incumbent cannot run for reelection.

Between 1948 and 1952 the White House was completely reconstructed. During most of this period the Truman family lived at Blair House, across the street from the Executive Mansion. It was while the Trumans were living there that an attempt was made to assassinate the president by two Puerto Rican terrorists, Oscar Collazo and Greselio Torresola. On Nov. 1, 1950, President Truman was upstairs taking an afternoon nap when the two-armed men ran up the steps to the front door of Blair House. Armed White House police rushed to stop them, firing as they ran. In a few moments Torresola lay dead and Collazo was severely wounded. Two police officers were wounded; a third, Leslie Coffelt, was killed.

President Truman took the attempt on his life calmly, keeping all the rest of his scheduled appointments that day and going for his customary early-morning walk the following day. He was familiar with the fact that Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were murdered while in office and that assassins had tried to kill Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt. "A President has to expect such things," Truman said. His would-be assassins were members of the Puerto Rican revolutionary Nationalist party determined to obtain Puerto Rican independence. Collazo was convicted of murdering Coffelt and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Truman later commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. The President had previously assured the Puerto Rican people they were free to work out their own political future. President Truman refused to seek reelection in 1952, and the Democratic nomination went to Governor Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. The candidate for the Republican Party was General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Eisenhower was inaugurated President on January 20, 1953, and Harry Truman retired to his home in Independence, Missouri. When he left office, Truman said, "I have had a career from precinct to president, and I'm proud of that career." Friends raised funds to build the Harry S. Truman Library at Independence. After his death on Dec. 26, 1972, Harry Truman was buried in the courtyard of the library. His memoirs appeared in 1955-56. In 1959 his birthplace at Lamar was dedicated as a Missouri State shrine. In 1965 the Medicare act -- government health insurance for the aged, first sponsored by Truman in 1945 — was signed in the Truman Library.

 
 
Initiated: February 9, 1909, Belton Lodge No. 450, Belton, Missouri. In 1911, several Members of Belton Lodge separated to establish Grandview Lodge No. 618, Grandview, Missouri, and Brother Truman served as its first Worshipful Master. At the Annual Session of the Grand Lodge of Missouri, September 24-25, 1940, Brother Truman was elected (by a landslide) the ninety-seventh Grand Master of Masons of Missouri, and served until October 1, 1941. Brother and President Truman was made a Sovereign Grand Inspector General, 33°, and Honorary Member, Supreme Council on October 19,1945 at the Supreme Council A.A.S.R. Southern Jurisdiction Headquarters in Washington D.C., upon which occasion he served as Exemplar (Representative) for his Class. He was also elected an Honorary Grand Master of the International Supreme Council, Order of DeMolay. On May 18, 1959, Brother and Former President Truman was presented with a fifty-year award, the only U.S. President to reach that golden anniversary in Freemasonry. Harry Truman was a member of the Ararat Shrine Temple.

One Good Mason Saved, Another Good Mason Dead

by Dean S. Clatterbuck, 32°

Officer Leslie Coffelt lost his life defending President Harry S. Truman during a failed assassination attempt in 1950. Both were Brother Master Masons.

Right: One Good Mason Dead: Announcement from Potomac Lodge No. 5 at the time of the funeral of Brother Leslie Coffelt, White House Police Officer, slain while protecting President Harry S. Truman.

It is Wednesday, November 1, 1950, one hundred fifty years to the day since John Adams became the first president to occupy The White House. Harry S. Truman is the 33rd president, and extensive repairs to The White House have forced the Truman family to move across Pennsylvania Avenue to the Blair House, usually reserved for visiting dignitaries. It was the home for President Truman and his family for almost his entire presidency and was quickly dubbed “The Truman White House.”

Harry Truman’s schedule for the first of November is a bit lighter than usual, and by one o’clock, his appointments concluded, he makes the short trip across the street to Blair House to have lunch with his wife, Bess, and then to catch a nap. The hour is two o’clock. It won’t be a long nap, for he is scheduled to depart for Arlington National Cemetery at 2:50 p.m., but the next thirty minutes will make that Wednesday a day that Harry Truman would remember for the rest of his life.

It would not be forgotten because of an attempted assassination that day by two Puerto Rican nationalists, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo. On October 30, 1950, an attempt at a coup in San Juan, Puerto Rico, collapsed in a bloody barrage of shots in which Griselio’s sister was wounded and captured. The nationalist cause had become personal as well as political for Griselio. He decided it was time to act, and the deed should be something big—like assassinating the President of the United States.

On October 31, 1950, Oscar and Griselio registered at the Hotel Harris under assumed names. The next day they ate lunch, and Griselio gave Oscar some hurried instructions on the weapon Griselio had purchased for him, a Walther P38. Hailing a cab, the men asked to be taken to the White House to see where the president lived. But the cab driver corrected them, telling them that Truman was living across the street at the Blair House.

Upon arriving in the area of the Blair House, Griselio and Oscar surveyed the situation and formulated an improvised plan, not having known about Blair House until minutes before. As they looked over the scene, they could see two White House Police Officers in their guard houses, one at either end of the Blair House.

One of them was forty-year-old Leslie Coffelt, a native Virginian who had begun his law enforcement career with the Metropolitan Police Department. After eight years, he transferred to the White House Police, the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service, where he now had seven years of service as a Private, except for a break to serve in the army during World War II.

In an ironic twist of fate, he was scheduled to be off that day, but a fellow officer, one of his best friends, needed some time off to paint his house, so Les offered to work in his place. Les was an active Mason and a member of Potomac Lodge No. 5, having been raised on September 28, 1945. Les was faithful in his attendance so far as his rotating shift work at Blair House allowed and had hoped that he might serve as lodge officer in 1951. It would be an unrealized hope.

The two guard houses on either side of the Blair House were on the sidewalk, one at the west end and the other at the east. At 2:00 p.m., Leslie Coffelt was in the west end guard house and Officer Joe Davidson was on duty in the east end booth. White House Police Officer Donald Birdzell was guarding the front door to Blair House.

At about 2:20 p.m., Griselio and Oscar approached Blair House from opposite directions. Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring had just stepped outside of Blair House for a routine check with his detail. He spoke with Les, then moved to the east booth and was talking with Joe in the booth when Oscar Collazo walked by.

Officer Birdzell was facing the Blair House when he suddenly heard a sharp “click.” He recognized the sound as one associated with a firearm and pivoted on the spot. Oscar’s gun had misfired as he attempted to shoot Birdzell from point-blank range. Now, in extreme frustration, Oscar was pounding the Walther P38 with his left fist, which caused the weapon to fire, striking Birdzell in the right knee.

In agonizing pain, Birdzell limped out onto Pennsylvania Avenue, turning to return fire at Oscar, who had started up the now unguarded steps. Officer Davidson began firing at Oscar from the east guard booth area, and Agent Boring also began firing. Oscar sat down on the second step and fired a clip of bullets at the officers, but failed to hit either of them.

Agent Stewart Stout, inside the Blair House, heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire, grabbed a submachine gun, and took up a position inside the house at the door. Agent Vince Mroz emerged from the basement door behind Boring and Davidson and took one shot at Oscar. He then raced back into the basement to guard against any threat at the basement door at the other end of the building.

Simultaneously, Griselio Torresola had been approaching from the west and arrived at the western guardhouse just as the first gunfire erupted. He was directly behind White House Police Officer Joe Downs, who was returning to Blair House after making a run to get lunch for the shift. Accustomed to being frequently approached by tourists seeking information, Coffelt was taken completely by surprise as Griselio walked up. Griselio fired three rounds, hitting Coffelt in the chest, abdomen, and legs. Les sank into his chair, mortally wounded, but still managed to remain conscious and draw his gun. Downs, standing in the doorway, attempted to draw his pistol, but Griselio, an excellent marksman, shot him three times.

Scene of the Assassination Attempt: Blair House as it looks today. (State Dept. Photo)

Then, seeing Birdzell trying to shoot Oscar from the street, Griselio fired at Birdzell, hitting him in his left knee and disabling him. It appeared that only Agent Mroz and Secret Service Agent Stout remained to guard the president, but Leslie Coffelt, mustering what must have been a monumental effort before passing out, aimed his weapon and fired. His aim was true. His shot struck Griselio in the head, killing him instantly.

At the same time, Boring took a shot at Oscar, hit him in the chest, and put him out of action. It was over! All of the action had happened in a flash (later estimates ranged from forty seconds to three minutes).

The sound of gunfire roused Harry Truman from his nap. Arising from his bed, he walked to the front window to see what was going on. He looked out before Les Coffelt fired his fatal shot, but Griselio had emptied his German 9 mm Luger and was in the process of reloading. The assassin’s target was suddenly in plain view at the window.

Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring saw Truman and called for him to get out of view. Whether or not Griselio ever saw Truman is unknown, but in any event, Les Coffelt’s final act made the question moot. U.E. Baughman, Chief of the Secret Service was now on the scene, and uncertain if this was an isolated action or part of a larger plot, advised Truman to cancel his 2:50 trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Truman declined this advice and elected to go ahead, under a quadrupled Secret Service guard.

Agent Birdzell’s wounds were not life threatening; Downs was seriously wounded, but survived. Officer Leslie Coffelt died in the hospital less than four hours after being shot. He was the first member of the Uniformed Secret Service to lose his life in the line of duty.

Oscar Collazo also recovered from his wounds and was subsequently tried and sentenced to death. President Truman, not wanting to see him become a martyr, commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. President Jimmy Carter later ordered a now aged Collazo released, and he returned to Puerto Rico where he died of natural causes in 1994.

Three days after the assassination attempt, Harry Truman again returned to Arlington National Cemetery. This time, it was not to make a speech or help dedicate a statue. It was to attend the burial of Officer Leslie Coffelt. A religious service was held in the Fort Myer Chapel conducted by Dean John W. Suter of the Washington National Cathedral. Brother Coffelt was accorded last military honors, and the last observance was a Masonic funeral by Potomac Lodge.

The seven active pall hearers were fellow officers of the White House Police, and all were Masons. Two each were from Anacostia Lodge No. 21 and Potomac Lodge No. 5, one from Petworth Lodge No. 47, and two from other jurisdictions.

 

Biographical Sketches

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri on May 8, 1884, the son of John Anderson Truman and Martha Ellen (Young) Truman. The family, which soon included another boy, Vivian, and a girl, Mary Jane moved several times during Truman's childhood and youth - first, in 1887, to a farm near Grandview, then, in 1890, to Independence, and finally, in 1902, to Kansas City. Young Harry attended public schools in Independence, graduating from high school in 1901. After leaving school, he worked briefly as a timekeeper for a railroad construction contractor, then as a clerk in two Kansas City banks. In 1906 he returned to Grandview to help his father run the family farm. He continued working as a farmer for more than ten years.

From 1905 to 1911, Truman served in the Missouri National Guard. At the outbreak of World War I, he helped organize the 2nd Regiment of Missouri Field Artillery, which was quickly called into Federal service as the 129th Field Artillery and sent to France. Truman was promoted to Captain and given command of the regiment's Battery D. He and his unit saw action in the Vosges, Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. Truman joined the reserves after the war, rising eventually to the rank of colonel. He sought to return to active duty at the outbreak of World War II, but Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall declined his offer to serve.

On June 28, 1919, Truman married Bess Wallace, whom he had known since childhood. Their only child, Mary Margaret, was born on February 17, 1924. From 1919 to 1922 he ran a men's clothing store in Kansas City with his wartime friend, Eddie Jacobson. The store failed in the postwar recession. Truman narrowly avoided bankruptcy, and through determination and over many years he paid off his share of the store's debts.

Truman was elected in 1922, to be one of three judges of the Jackson County Court. Judge Truman whose duties were in fact administrative rather than judicial, built a reputation for honesty and efficiency in the management of county affairs. He was defeated for reelection in 1924, but won election as presiding judge in the Jackson County Court in 1926. He won reelection in 1930.

In 1934, Truman was elected to the United States Senate. He had significant roles in the passage into law of the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 and the Transportation Act of 1940. After being reelected in 1940, Truman gained national prominence as chairman of the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. This committee, which came to be called the Truman Committee, sought with considerable success to ensure that defense contractors delivered to the nation quality goods at fair prices.

In July 1944, Truman was nominated to run for Vice President with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. On January 20, 1945, he took the vice-presidential oath, and after President Roosevelt's unexpected death only eighty-two days later on April 12, 1945, he was sworn in as the nations' thirty-third President.

Truman later called his first year as President a "year of decisions." He oversaw during his first two months in office the ending of the war in Europe. He participated in a conference at Potsdam, Germany, governing defeated Germany, and to lay some groundwork for the final stage of the war against Japan. Truman approved the dropping of two bombs on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945. Japan surrendered on August 14, and American forces of occupation began to land by the end of the month. This first year of Truman's presidency also saw the founding of the United Nations and the development of an increasingly strained and confrontational relationship with the Soviet Union.

Truman's presidency was marked throughout by important foreign policy initiatives. Central to almost everything Truman undertook in his foreign policy was the desire to prevent the expansion of the influence of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine was an enunciation of American willingness to provide military aid to countries resisting communist insurgencies. The Marshall Plan sought to revive the economies of the nations of Europe in the hope that communism would not thrive in the midst of prosperity. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization built a military barrier confronting the Soviet-dominated part of Europe. The one time during his presidency when a communist nation invaded a non-communist one -- when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950 -- Truman responded by waging undeclared war.

In his domestic policies, Truman sought to accomplish the difficult transition from a war to a peace economy without plunging the nation into recession, and he hoped to extend New Deal social programs to include more government protection and services and to reach more people. He was successful in achieving a healthy peacetime economy, but only a few of his social program proposals became law. The Congress, which was much more Republican in its membership during his presidency than it had been during Franklin Roosevelt's, did not usually share Truman's desire to build on the legacy of the New Deal.

The Truman administration went considerably beyond the New Deal in the area of civil rights. Although, the conservative Congress thwarted Truman's desire to achieve significant civil rights legislation, he was able to use his powers as President to achieve some important changes. He issued executive orders desegregating the armed forces and forbidding racial discrimination in Federal employment. He also established a Committee on Civil Rights and encouraged the Justice Department to argue before the Supreme Court on behalf of plaintiffs fighting against segregation.

In 1948, Truman won reelection. His defeat had been widely expected and often predicted, but Truman's energy in undertaking his campaign and his willingness to confront issues won a plurality of the electorate for him. His famous "Whistlestop" campaign tour through the country has passed into political folklore, as has the photograph of the beaming Truman holding up the newspaper whose headline proclaimed, "Dewey Defeats Truman."

Truman left the presidency and retired to Independence in January 1953. For the nearly two decades of his life remaining to him, he delighted in being "Mr. Citizen," as he called himself in a book of memoirs. He spent his days reading, writing, lecturing and taking long brisk walks. He took particular satisfaction in founding and supporting his Library, which made his papers available to scholars, and which opened its doors to everyone who wished to have a glimpse of his remarkable life and career.

Harry S. Truman died on December 26, 1972. Bess Truman died on October 18, 1982. They are buried side by side in the Library's courtyard.