After looking in our card catalog of past members, Bro. Coffelt’s card was indeed retrieved. He had been a member of Potomac Lodge No. 5, raised in 1945. Strangely though, he died shortly thereafter in 1950. Nevertheless, Brenda was very excited that we found the card and asked if we could send an image of it. When we asked what was so special about Bro. Coffelt, she told us some of the story, and when relayed to our Grand Secretary, MW Bro. Jeff Russell, (a Past Master of Potomac Lodge No. 5) he referred to the incredible story below, told in full by RW Bro. Dean Clatterbuck, Past Master of Potomac Lodge No. 5…
One Good Mason Saved - Another Good Mason Dead
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 Bess and then catch a nap. Later that afternoon, he is scheduled to travel across the Potomac to nearby Arlington National Cemetery to join the British Ambassador and others in unveiling a statue of Sir John Dill, a British Field Marshall who has died while in Washington on assignment as the senior British representative to the Combined Chiefs of Staff.
After lunch, Truman retires to a second-floor bedroom at the front of Blair House for a nap.
Back in Puerto Rico, on October 30, 1950, an attempt at a coup in San Juan collapsed in a bloody barrage of shots in which the sister of Griselio was shot and captured. Now the cause became personal as well as political. It was time to act; to do something to bring attention to the perceived plight of Puerto Ricans living under the thumbs of the yanquis. The time was now, and the deed should be something big. Something like assassinating the President of the United States.
On October 31, 1950, Oscar and Griselio met at Penn Station in New York City and caught a train to Washington, D.C. They walked from Union Station and within a short distance found themselves at the Hotel Harris on Massachusetts Avenue. N.W., where they registered under assumed names and turned in about ten in the evening. The next morning, they walked from the hotel to the U. S. Capitol and calmly took a tour.
Oscar some hurried instructions on the use of 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 wasn’t living in The White House because it was undergoing renovations — he was living across the street at the Blair House.
Upon their arrival in the area of the Blair House, Griselio and Oscar surveyed the situation and re-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 hailing from a small town outside of Strasburg, who had begun his law enforcement career with the Metropolitan Police Department. He briefly left the force to try his hand at other endeavors, but he was a policeman at heart, and he returned to the force. After eight years, he transferred to the White House Police, the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service (and the forerunner of the Executive Protective 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 on 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 insofar as his rotating shift work at Blair House allowed. Les was hopeful that he might be able to serve as an officer in the Lodge in 1951. It would be an unrealized hope.
Officer Birdzell was facing the Blair House when he suddenly heard a sharp “click.” Intuitively, he recognized the sound as one associated with a firearm and pivoted on the spot. Collazo’s gun had mis-fired as he attempted to shoot Birdzell from point-black range. Now, in extreme frustration, Collazo was pounding the Walther P38 with his left fist, which caused the weapon to fire.
The bullet struck Birdzell in the right knee. In agonizing pain, Birdzell limped out onto Pennsylvania Avenue, turning to return fire at Collazo who had started up the now unguarded steps. Officer Davidson began firing at Collazo from the east guard booth area and Agent Boring also began firing. Collazo sat on the second step and fired a clip of bullets at the two men, but failed to hit either of them.
Agent Stewart Stout, hearing the unmistakable sound of gunfire, had grabbed a submachine gun and taken 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 Collazo. He then raced back into the Lee House 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. 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.
Then, seeing Birdzell trying to shoot Collazo 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 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.
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 emp-tied his German 9 mm Luger and was in the process of reloading. The assassin’s target was suddenly in plain view.
Secret Service Agent Floyd Boring saw Truman at the window 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 being uncertain if this was an isolated action or part of a larger plot, advised Truman to cancel his 3:00 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.
Collazo also recovered from his wounds and was subsequently tried and sentenced to death. President Truman, not wanting to see Collazo 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 and the service was conducted by Dean John W. Suter of the Washington National Cathedral. Brother Coffelt was accorded last military honors. The last observance was a Masonic funeral by the Lodge.
The seven active pall bearers 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. There were six honorary pall bearers, all of whom were retired
Author's Note: Authors Steven Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr. have written an excellent and riveting account of this historical event and the background leading to the assassination attempt. The book (linked here on Amazon), American Gunfight, The Plot to Kill Harry Truman – and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It is published by Simon & Schuster. This was among the source documents used to prepare this article.
Back in the present day, this is where the story takes another turn. Quickly the phone was handed off to W Bro. Jason Coffelt, current Master of J.H. Gurlie Lodge #337 in Waco, Texas, who was in the Grand lodge offices that day helping with their membership database.
As you have probably already figured out, W Bro. Coffelt is related to Leslie Coffelt – in fact, he is Bro. Leslie Coffelt’s cousin on his Grandfather's side.
But amazingly, W Bro. Jason hadn’t thought there were any other Masons in his family until he was watching the History Channel and Leslie Coffelt’s story was told – including the part about a Masonic funeral. He simply thought, “Huh. I wonder if I am related to that guy?”
And after asking some other relatives, it turns out he was related, and had some Masonry in the family after all! We sent Jason a copy of the article RW Bro. Clatterbuck wrote, and he mentioned that he’d love to visit to visit Potomac Lodge No. 5 sometime in the future to sit with Brothers he never knew how closely he was connected to.