Book Review: American Gunfight.
American Gunfight. The Plot To Kill Harry Truman And The Shoot-Out That Stopped It. By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr. Simon & Schuster. 2005. 368 pages. HB. $26.95. Available from Amazon & Borders.
On November 1st, 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists named Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, armed with 9mm pistols, staged a brazen daylight attack against Blair House, 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC, the temporary residence of President Harry S. Truman.
This sudden, violent attempt to assassinate Mr. Truman, who was at that moment taking a nap upstairs, lasted 38.5 seconds. When it was over, between 29 and 31 shots had been fired at ranges of 25 feet or less, Torresola was dead, Collazo was wounded, and three White House police officers were wounded, one mortally. Mr. Truman was not injured, but as the book shows, he escaped certain death by mere seconds.
The attempt on Mr. Truman's life was but one part of a conspiracy involving a plot to assassinate the Governor of Puerto Rico and the beginning of a revolution for Puerto Rican independence. The book thoroughly documents this plot and its participants, as well a a general history of United States involvement in Puerto Rico.
But the real focus of the book is the Blair House gunfight and its participants. The authors do a masterful job of telling its story, recreating the fight virtually second by second. They note who fired shots, when the shots were fired, and they track the movements of all the players in the drama, along with their locations relative to each other at any given time.
To illustrate the idea that one fights as one has trained, the authors investigated the state of police firearms training as it was practiced in 1950. The training was almost universally confined to single action, off-hand shooting at bulls-eye targets at known distances with .38 Special revolvers firing 148 grain WC target loads. There was no training with the standard duty load of the time, the .38 Special with a 158 grain RNL bullet, nor was there any training on double action shooting or use of the two hand grip. The training routine would have a significant impact on the outcome of the Blair House gunfight.
Further, the nature of the physiological changes in the human body that occur during a gunfight, such as loss of fine motor skills, auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and adrenalin dump (sound familiar?) were not understood in 1950, and all participants in the fight were affected by these changes in varying degrees.
Of the 15 shots fired by two Secret Service agents and three White House policemen, only one was effective, the shot that killed Torresola. Two other shots inflicted non-fatal superficial wounds on Collazo, and one of these was a ricochet off a wrought iron fence. The authors present evidence that six of the 15 police shots were fired double action at Collazo by one White House officer. Five were clean misses and one was the aforementioned ricochet (recall the lack of double action training). A third Secret Service agent on duty inside Blair House never fired a shot. By the time he retrieved a Thompson sub-gun from a locked cabinet and loaded the weapon, the fight was over.
In contrast, the two would-be assassins fired between 14 and 16 shots, eight of which struck their intended targets. Seven of these eight shots were fired by Torresola.
The book concludes with chapters on the aftermath and the investigation of the gunfight and the conspiracy, and Oscar Collazo's murder trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted by President Truman in 1952. Collazo was pardoned by President Carter in 1979.
Finally, the authors note that few, if any, of the tactical "lessons learned" from the Blair House gunfight were recognized or implemented into American law enforcement training programs for many years afterwards.
Many shooters will recognize the name Stephen Hunter as the gun-savvy author of the Earl and Bob Lee Swagger novels. His credentials are genuine.
You must read this book. Buy it, borrow it from a library or a friend, but read it. It's that good, trust me.