U.S. Air Force Col Harry Shoup was listening to silence as he held the dreaded Red Phone to his ear. The ringing of the red telephone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colarado meant a crisis call from either the Pentagon or his Commander-In-Chief.
‘This is Col Shoup. Can you read me?’ he asked again for the third time. Still silence.
Finally he heard voice on the other end of the phone: ‘Are you Santa Claus?’. It was the soft voice of a little girl.
He quickly looked around to see if his colleagues were laughing on the prank they played on him. It did not seem that. He was puzzled but he decided to play on: ‘Yes, I am. Have you been a good girl?’
‘Santa, I am leaving some tasty food for you and your reindeer near my door. Please have the food. And here’s my Christmas list’..’
He was still stunned as he hung up. But the red phone kept ringing all through the night with kids asking for Santa.
It was much later that he realised that Sears Roebuck had put out a local newspaper ad inviting kids to call Santa on his direct line. But the number listed in the ad had a typo. And that lead to kids calling the most secure air defence emergency number.
It was the night of Dec 24th 1955 and Colonel Shoup did not want to disappoint the kids. So he got his airmen team to answer every call by giving Santa’s ‘current location’ as per their radar.
From that night on, tracking Santa became a yearly tradition, for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the new version of CONAD. A new number was set up – not the red phone any more – and it was publicized widely and kids were invited to call on Chrismtas eve to know the exact location of Santa. Every Christmas eve, kids call to asking ‘where is Santa right now and how far is he from my home’ and the good military folks of NORAD tell them.
Col Harry Shoup passed away in 2009 and is fondly remembered by his peers and the public as ‘Santa’ Colonel!
We just don’t get tired of Santa Stories! They melt the heaets of the hardest of cynics. Picture this: The Director of the most secure air defence base in the US gets a call on his most secure line. It is a line meant for direct orders to attack from the higher ups. And then he hears the voice of kid asking for Santa. He would be totally justified if he had hung up and moved on. Yes, many more kids would have called. But that’s ok. This is air defence. Most important. No wasting time on kids.
It happens often in our lives. We are in our own bubble of busy. And when that innocuos call comes in, we’ve ignored, hung up or just slammed it down. Col Harry Shoup decided to take the less preferred route and we can see what he managed to create. A million kids who’ve called up the NORAD centre got an answer – fictitious it may be – but boy – don’t we all need a story to believe and keep the faith on.
This Mental Floss Article pointed me to the story first. And then this is the website of NORAD. And do spend some time reading on the Santa Colonel.
There are many versions of the same story out here in the wiki page – but rest assured, what you read above is just about accurate.