Join The World's Best Iconic & Vintage Car Community >>

The Sebring 12 Hour – H-Bombs and the Planned Invasion of Cuba

US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress (Photo: Lou Galanos)
US Air Force B-52 Stratofortress (Photo: Lou Galanos)

Story by Louis Galanos | Photos as credited

In 1962 I was a junior in high school and living in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, a small anthracite coal mining town, on the Susquehanna River in north east Pennsylvania.

During the previous three summers my father would take my brothers and me to the Giants’ Despair Hillclimb just outside Wilkes-Barre where motorsports legends like Carroll Shelby, Roger Penske and Oscar Koveleski raced their Ferraris and Porsches. It was then I fell in love with sports car racing.

At those events the talk, at the end of the day, quite often turned to other races and prominent among them was the Sebring 12-Hour Grand Prix of Endurance in Florida and which driver or car constructor won last and who might win the next race.

Being a young lad all I could do was listen to the stories told and retold about Juan Fangio, Stirling Moss, Eugenio Castellotti, Carroll Shelby and the cars they drove in what many considered to be the premier sports car race in North America. On our way home I would often ask my dad when we were going to Sebring. The answer was always the same, “Someday.”

When I was old enough to drive my indulgent parents allowed me to go to hillclimbs on my own as well as attend events put on by local sports car clubs. I tried my hand at doing gymkhanas in a friend’s car but quickly learned that, while I was a safe driver, I was no Stirling Moss. My problem, I got motion sick going through all those turns and one time embarrassed myself by losing my lunch at the finish line.

After a lot of pleading and promise making my parents permitted me to drive up to Watkins Glen, NY for a Sports Car Club of America road race that was held during the summer. I tried to get permission to return for the first Watkins Glen Grand Prix in October of 1961 but they thought it was too risky a trip for a 16-year-old and besides I would miss too many school days to make the trip.

At the beginning of the 1961-62 school year I developed a strategy to convince my parents to let me, and my friend Russell, drive down to Sebring, during Spring Break of 1962 for the 12-hour race. That strategy included doing everything they asked of me, plus getting good grades in school and doing part-time work in my grandparents store to earn money for the trip to Florida. In anticipation that my strategy would be successful I even purchased two tickets to the race using the contact information I found in an issue of Road & Track magazine.

Despite the skepticism of my two brothers things worked out for me and early on March 20th, 1962, Russell and I had his ’57 Chevy all packed up and we were on our way for the 1200 mile trip to Florida. As a last-minute thing Russell bought us two University of Pennsylvania T-shirts because he thought if we pretended to be college students we just might meet some coeds there who were on Spring Break. As it turned out it was an excellent idea.

At the half-way point we stopped at a hotel/entertainment complex called South of the Border on U.S. 301 in Dillon, South Carolina. Our hotel room there would be our major expense on this adventure since we planned to sleep in the car when at the track. We turned in before 10 p.m. planning for an early start the next day because we didn’t plan to stop until we got to the track.

Going through Georgia and North Florida there were several news reports on the radio about the growing crisis with communist Cuba and the embargo placed on that island nation by the O.A.S. or Organization of American States. Several reports surfaced that south Florida Cuban community leaders were calling for an invasion of Cuba by the United States.

We arrived in the town of Sebring on the afternoon of March 21 after over 10 hours of hard-driving and we immediately found a grocery store so we could stock up on what we would need for our stay at the track. Needless to say most of what we bought was junk food since we had no room in our cooler for perishables. The cooler was reserved for beer and beer alone. The only things that might qualify as healthy were several cans of Dinty Moore beef stew that had a sterno can attached to them. All you had to do was open up the slot in the sterno can, light it and before long you got nice hot beef stew.

It was a short trip to the track from downtown Sebring and we drove right into the spectator camping area since the raceway was not set up to collect tickets that early in the week. Luck was with us and we found a group of college students from the University of Florida (UF) who had already set up an elaborate camp near the paddock that included tents, chairs, bicycles, a large shelter on poles, a couch, a fire pit and a cooking area with two grills. Since we were wearing our college shirts they welcomed us with open arms and helped us find a parking spot near their cars. The UF coeds were very nice and we found their southern drawl charming. I must admit I initially felt a little guilty telling them we were college students but that wore off quickly.

Despite being exhausted from our long drive we partied with the “other college students” until the wee hours of the morning. We than went to our car and collapsed fast asleep on the bench seats of the Chevy (Can’t do that in my Toyota today). We were dead asleep until about 5 a.m. when a loud roar of a jet aircraft awoke us. It was too dark to see anything so we immediately went back to sleep.

We didn’t get up until 10 a.m. the next day and after getting cleaned up in the primitive track facilities we had breakfast with the other students. The young ladies were amazing, cooking bacon and eggs for all and making coffee. It was a little chilly that morning and the hot coffee was welcome. In order to be good house guests Russell and I volunteered to clean up the area and wash the pots and pans after everyone was done. The young ladies really appreciated this and two of them gave us a peck on the check for our efforts.

After breakfast a few of us went for a stroll over to the paddock and pits. I was anxious to see some of the exotic cars I had always heard about. In the pit area I almost fell over myself trying to get a look at the new Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR that was there. I had to mentally caution myself not to drool all over the car.

Also in the pits was British champion Stirling Moss. He was talking to a fellow by the name of Steve McQueen and his wife Neile. One of the coeds told me that McQueen was a TV star but I didn’t think I had ever seen anything he was in. Both Moss and McQueen would be driving Austin-Healey Sprites in the 3-hour race for small sedans on Friday.

Twice on our walk a large Air Force transport came low overhead and made for the long North – South runway at Sebring. No one seemed to know why they were there until we came across a college student by the name of Dave Nicholas from Binghampton, New York. He had press credentials given to him by the speedway because he was doing a story for his college newspaper. He told us the a B-52 bomber from McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida had made an emergency landing at the airport and was parked by one of the big hangers. The other planes were bringing in parts and mechanics to repair the bomber. Only the drag parachute on the B-52 saved them from going off a runway not suited for such a big plane. The plane also burned up some of its brakes in trying to stop. How they would be able to take off without running out of runway was anyone’s guess.

Dave went off to talk to someone in the pit tower but soon returned with some interesting news. It seems that the commander of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), general Curtis LeMay, had flown in on one of the transports to oversee the repairs. I thought this strange for a four-star general to do something like this until I remembered a story in Road & Track magazine about how General LeMay was instrumental in allowing sports car races on Air Force bases in the 1950’s. No doubt, as a lover of sports cars, he wanted to see some of the machines that were entered at Sebring that year. Later Dave would come across LeMay in one of the garages working on a Ferrari. The owner of the car said that LeMay just showed up in a flight suit and volunteered to help prepare the car for the 12-hour race.

By late afternoon most of us were back at the camp site only to find that two of Dave Nicholas’s New York buddies (known as the BARC Boys) had brought over some oranges and grapefruit that they had misappropriated from nearby groves. They were a welcome treat for all and after another night of partying Russell and I retired to our humble sleeping quarters.

Again, I had to make an early morning visit to the bathroom and upon my return saw a UF coed by the name of Gail awake and looking toward the airport. She said she was a former Sebring High School grad and one of her classmates was a sheriff’s deputy doing security at the raceway.

He told her that there were strange goings on at one of the big World War II era hangers but he was not allowed to go over there. Her curiosity was peaked and she asked if I was interested in going over there with her to check things out. I couldn’t turn down an invitation like this from a pretty lass and I grabbed my camera from the car. When I turned around Gail had two bicycles for us and two flashlights and before I knew it we were biking down the racing surface and on our way to the hangers.

It was pitch black in that area of the race circuit and the flashlights helped illuminate the way. However, as we got near the runway I noticed that the area beyond one of the very large hangers was aglow with light and the sound of generators could also be heard.

I called for Gail to stop and turn off her flashlight. When she asked why I pointed to a cluster of Air Police and Highlands County Deputies in the distance standing around a burn barrel to keep warm and smoke cigarettes.

We were near enough now to the backside of the hanger, which was in shadow, to walk the rest of the way. Coming around the south corner of the hanger I saw this huge B-52 Stratofortress under auxiliary lights. As I raised my camera to take a picture one of the race cars came flying by between me and the bomber. This shocked me and I didn’t know if I had actually taken the picture until later when the film was developed. No less than 30 seconds later a Sheriff’s car zoomed past us chasing down the race car. Fortunately we were still in shadow and they didn’t see us. I found out later that race mechanics were known to take cars out at night to find open area where they could test repairs and suspension settings.

I had a sinking feeling that if the deputies were in hot pursuit of the race car the Air Police were not far behind so I asked Gail to follow me trying to keep the hanger walls between us and the Air Police. We found a man-sized door in one of the hanger walls and went inside the darkened hanger to wait until things cooled off.

After about ten minutes Gail began to stir and turned on her flashlight which freaked me out. In a low shout I asked her what she was doing. She said she “had to pee” and went off looking for a bathroom which she found in the far corner of the hangar. While she was doing her business I stood there transfixed at the sight of a World War II era B-25 Mitchell bomber that looked like it was undergoing some kind of refurbishing.

Gail began to beckon to me to see what she found in one of the rooms at the back of the hanger. As I entered what used to be a large parts storage room I turned on my flashlight to see what she was talking about. On the walls were a number of old Sebring racing posters and several girlie calendars which drew my rapt attention.

When she saw what I was looking at she said, “Not that you dummy, look over here.” As she swung her flashlight to a corner of the room I saw a large metal cylinder. As I put my light on it I knew immediately what it was and my heart literally missed a beat and I began to get nauseous.

I said, “You know what that is, don’t you?” She got a wicked smile on her face and said, “Yup!”

Not until later did I confirm that we were looking at what was a Mark 27 Thermonuclear bomb from the disabled B-52 outside. On top of that there were three more in that room.

“We need to get out of here.” Gail said. When I asked why she shown her light on the warning sign about radioactivity. She joked that if we stay any longer we would start glowing in the dark. I had the presence of mind to take a photo of the bomb before we left.

Years later I would find out that the B-52 was from the 4047th Strategic Bomb Wing out of McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando. It had been doing patrols just outside Cuban airspace and began to experience mechanical difficulties on their return to base. The pilot thought he could make it home but when things got critical he landed at Sebring.

Unknown to all of us at the time the United States had, earlier in March of 1962, drawn up plans for “US Military Intervention in Cuba” and the B-52 flights were part of the preparation for an invasion of Cuba by the United States.

Gail and I made it back to the campsite without incident and without exchanging a word. After putting the bikes away I said to her that we can never say anything to anyone about this. All she did was nod her head in agreement. I then wished her a good night and began to turn away when she grabbed my arm to stop me. She then kissed me on the lips and walked away. I was left standing there speechless. For the life of me I couldn’t get back to sleep and was still awake when the sun rose over the raceway.

Friday would be a big day for all of us because several support races were planned including a small sedan race, a Formula Junior race and a kart race. Someone had set up a solo-type course near one of the hangers where people were racing go-karts. One of those racers was none other than General Curtis LeMay. It was a hoot to see him in civilian clothes and pilot’s helmet driving a kart while smoking a cigar.

Before the start of the Formula Junior race an announcement was made that there would be a delay in the start. The delay seemed to last forever until a tremendously loud sound caused everyone to look in the direction of the airport. Rising into the sky was a large plume of white smoke and someone exclaimed that a plane had crashed. As the loud sound continued we recognized it as jet engines on full throttle and soon the now repaired B-52 was going down the East – West runway at a very fast clip. As it passed our observation point in the pits it began to lift and cleared the end of the runway with feet to spare. Later that day Dave found out that the bomber had used JATO (Jet Assisted Take Off) rockets to get airborne.

You could still see the B-52 in the distance when the flag was dropped for the start of the Formula Junior race. At last we were getting what we traveled so far to see. Not long after that race was concluded the flag was dropped for the start of the 3-hour small sedan race. By then the rain that had been threatening all morning was coming down heavily. We all sought shelter in the pit area. The rain didn’t last long and we availed ourselves of the opportunity to walk around and take photos.

To me the 12-hour race on Saturday was a bit of an anticlimax after all that I had experienced and seen on Thursday and Friday. However, the racing was great and I got to meet and talk to some of the most famous people in endurance racing. That included Phil Hill and co-driver Olivier Gendebien. I also saw Jim Hall who would go on to fame as a Chaparral constructor and driver along with a very young Mark Donohue who was driving a TVR. Then there was Briggs Cunningham, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Roger Penske and many, many more legends or about to be legends. Sebring was living up to its name as the Best Sports Car Race in North America. By the end of the race, which concluded in almost pitch dark, two Ferrari 250’s came in 1-2 and a Porsche 718 RS60 Spyder came in third. People didn’t begin to disperse from the victory circle celebrations until very late and we then dragged ourselves back to the camp site totally exhausted. Within minutes I was fast asleep on the Chevy’s bench seats not having the energy to even wash my face or brush my teeth. That could wait for the following morning.

Early on Sunday we were saying our goodbyes to our wonderful Florida friends and making promises to see them at Sebring the following year. We had to get on the road early in order to get back home by Monday afternoon and miss just one day of school after the end of Spring Break.

As we got into a long line of cars exiting the track we heard whistles being blown by Sheriffs Deputies to stop traffic so a military convoy of trucks and jeeps could leave the raceway. There were at least four heavy-duty trucks and as many jeeps with 30 cal. machine guns mounted on pedestals. I had no doubt that those trucks contained the H-bombs and they were being transported to McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando by a cadre of heavily armed Air Police. I assumed the repaired B-52 could never take off from the short Sebring runways with the extra weight of the bombs so they had to be taken by truck back to base.

At that moment I didn’t say anything to Russell about what I had seen in and around that large hanger but once we were out of Florida I spilled my guts about everything. I don’t think he believed me. All that seemed to concern him was how come I didn’t get any action from that pretty UF coed. I wondered about that myself for some time.

Upon my return home on Monday the 26th I was greeted warmly by my parents and brothers but everyone was quite busy for the rest of the week so and I didn’t get a chance to tell them, in detail, what I had seen and experienced.

Not until the following weekend, when we were all gathered for Sunday dinner, did I relate what happened in Florida. I told the family everything but I emphasized the story about the B-52 and the H-bombs. Everyone listened with rapt attention and when I finished my father looked at my mother and she at him and he began to laugh and laugh.

When I asked what he thought was so funny he responded by saying, “Son, that is the best and most elaborate April Fool’s Day story I ever heard. With that everyone at the table began to laugh and it dawned on me that Sunday was the first of April, or April Fool’s Day. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry so I capitulated and began to laugh with everyone else.

[Source: Louis Galanos]