Just before Christmas in 1955, a telephone rang in the Combat Operations Center of Continental Air Defense Command. That one unexpected call was the beginning of a Christmas story that has been retold ever since. It’s time to tell it again because sometimes the story behind technology is as interesting as the technology itself.
The red telephone in the Combat Operations Center of Continental Air Defense Command was never meant to ring. Well it was, but everyone hoped it would remain silent. So when it did ring on that fateful day just before Christmas in 1955, Colonel Harry W. Shoup admitted to himself that he was nervous. Placing his coffee cup down on the exact center of the coaster on his desk, he picked up the receiver.
Before he could speak, an excited voice tumbled out eight words. “Is that Santa? Is that really, really Santa?”
It was the wrong voice. Only one person knew the number of the telephone and he was a four star General in the Pentagon. This was not the voice of a four star General. Instead, it was that of a girl who couldn’t be more than four or five years old. “How did you get this number?” he said.
“Santa gave it to me,” the girl said, her original excitement now fading to disappointment.
“Sure, but how did he get the number?” he said, softening his tone.
“I don’t know – but he did say I could call him.”
“So I can tell him I want an Effanbee Honey Walker doll for Christmas.”
“An Effanbee Honey Walker doll. She walks, you know, she really walks.”
“Look, I’m not Santa, but I am one of his helpers and I’ll make sure he gets your message. Er, thanks for, um, calling Santa.”
He replaced the receiver and sat back. Santa? He was a director of combat operations for the US Air Force and the telephone was only meant to be called from Strategic Air Command. Even then, it was only ever to be used if there was a threat to American air space from the Soviet Union. What was going on?
And then the phone rang again. He picked up the receiver and waited this time.
It was a boy, probably early teens and definitely in a hurry. “Santa? You have to bring me a JC Higgins bicycle this year. The one with the black and red paint and gold trim. And it has to be registered with Pinkerton’s. Jimmy next door says he’s getting one, so I have to have one too. A JC Higgins bicycle. Please remember. Thanks. Got to go.”
Enough. Putting the receiver back down again, he stood up and shouted through his open office door. “Sergeant Harris!”
The duty sergeant appeared in seconds. “Sir?”
He pointed to one of the chairs in front of his desk. “Sit down there and answer the red telepone when it rings.”
“The red telephone? But, sir –“
“And pretend you’re Santa,” he sighed. “And yes, that is an order.”
Leaving his office, he walked into the Combat Operations Center. Lines of desks and consoles faced a large map of America and Canada on the far wall. At every desk and console, airmen and airwomen were talking on telephones, gazing at screens and occasionally asking each other questions. Now and again, one of them would walk up to the map and move a marker on it, draw a line from one point to another, or remove one of the many markers or lines already there.
They were monitoring the skies over America, tracking unidentified aircraft and looking for unexpected threats. Of particular interest was Alaska and the arctic circle where, at the narrowest stretch of the Bering Strait, just 51 miles separated America and the Soviet Union.
He liked it in here. Despite these uneasy times, all he heard was the quiet hum of determined people doing an important job. Regrettably, he was about to disturb that. He walked to the map and turned to face the room. “People,” he said loudly.
All chatter and movement stopped and everyone looked at him.
“I need the answer to a question, and I need it quickly,” he said. “I want to know why children are calling the Strategic Air Command line, thinking it’s the number for … Santa.” Surprised expressions and quite a few smiles appeared. “No, this is not a seasonal joke. The number’s been compromised and I have to know why. Get to it, people.”
As the room came back to life, he walked up and down in front of the map, hands behind his back. Telephone calls were made, there were rushed conversations in low voices, telephone calls were returned.
It took perhaps ten minutes before Technical Sergeant Roswell came up to him and stood to attention. “Sir, I’ve found out why,” he said and held out a newspaper.
It was a copy of the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Colonel took it from him, puzzled. Had a journalist leaked the number? Was there something going on he knew nothing about?
“Page five, sir.”
He opened the newspaper and stared at the item circled in red pen. No, it wasn’t a journalist. It was Sears department store. They had placed an advertisement inviting children to call Santa. The only problem was, the number shown was the one for the Combat Operations Center hotline. Irritated, he read out some of the wording from the advertisement. “Call me on my private phone and I will talk to you personally any time day or night.” He looked up at the Sergeant. “Any time day or night? Do they know what they’ve damn well done?”
“I spoke to them, sir, and they say it was a mistake. It won’t happen again.”
“Okay, Sergeant, tell everyone to get back to normal duty.”
He walked back to his office slowly. This wasn’t actually a problem. The switchboard could give the hotline a new number and they would simply cut off the current number and not use it again.
Only it was a problem. When he reached his office, Sergeant Harris was talking on the red telephone while writing on a clipboard. “Absolutely, Santa can do that for you, Larry. You have a wonderful Christmas. Goodbye.” He put down the receiver and the phone immediately rang again.
“Wait before you answer it,” the Colonel said. “How many calls have you had?”
The Sergeant looked at the clipboard in front of him. “Twenty four so far. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing.”
“Why the clipboard?”
“To write down the present requests,” the Sergeant said and then looked down at the floor, realizing what he was actually saying.
“Okay, carry on.” The Colonel sat down and watched the Sergeant answer the phone for the twenty fifth time. He checked his watch. Four o’clock. Kids were getting back from school. A lot of parents would have saved the newspaper to show their sons and daughters the advertisement from Santa. He picked up the receiver of his standard office telephone and called the switchboard. He had to end this nonsense.
Five minutes later, he walked back into the Combat Operations Center and stood once again in front of the wall map. The room slowly quietened and the staff looked at him expectantly. “I’m looking for volunteers,” he said. “A lot of people now think the hotline number is Santa’s number. The phone won’t stop ringing and I don’t expect it to stop ringing any time soon. I need volunteers to help answer the calls. The switchboard people say they can divert the calls to any number of lines. This isn’t official duty, it’s not an order, and we don’t have the budget to pay for overtime. I’m just looking for one or two volunteers.”
Everyone in the room raised a hand in the air. And so it began. As people came off duty, they had a rushed meal in the canteen, returned to the Combat Operations Center, found a spare phone and started taking calls.
When the Colonel wandered through the crowded, noisy room a couple of hours later, he was pleased. Until he looked at the map on the wall. A marker had appeared in the top left corner, in the arctic circle, and dotted lines from it led to every major city in the country. “Kravitz,” he said to the airman nearest to him. “What on earth is that on the board?”
“It’s, er, Santa’s sleigh, Colonel. We’re tracking it.”
He stared at it for a long, long time and the noise in the room around them died down.
“Sorry, sir,” Kravtiz said. “I’ll take it off the board. It was humor that got out of hand.”
“No, Airman,” the Colonel said. “Keep on tracking it and update me on its progress.” It wasn’t until he returned to his office and sat down that he smiled. He then made a call and asked to speak to someone in public relations.
On the day before Christmas Eve, the Associated Press syndicated the following story from the US Air Force:
That’s not the end of the story
The story you’ve read so far is based on true events, but they’ve been elaborated on over the years. Colonel Harry W. Shoup really did receive a telephone call just before Christmas in 1955 from a child asking for Santa, but there was no red telephone and no hotline. And it was a misdialed call, not a misprint in a Sears ad, although the number that was dialled incorrectly was probably from the Sears ad. Santa’s sleigh did, however, appear on the surveillance board in the Combat Operations Center as a result of the call, and the Colonel did say that Santa should continue to be tracked … with a serious, no-nonsense Colonel’s expression. And that press release is real too.
But in later years, the whole thing … well, snowballed.
In 1956, Colonel Shoup followed Santa’s journey from the North Pole on the surveillance board again, and it was repeated in the following years, the publicity around it growing and growing. In newspapers and on the radio and TV, stories appeared at Christmas about how the US Air Force was tracking Santa, including updates from St Hubert in Quebec about the flight of ‘S. Claus’.
And in 1981, a funny thing happened. The story we started with came true. North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), the successor to Continental Air Defense Command, created a Santa hotline. Children could call in and ask for updates on Santa’s journey on Christmas Eve. Do you know what? Just as you read earlier, hundreds of military personnel volunteered their own time to answer the thousands and thousands of calls that came in from more than 200 countries.
And then technology entered the picture.
In 1997, the NORAD Santa Tracker made a natural move to the internet with a website that was good … for the time. In 2008, an official Twitter account, @NORADSanta, was created which has 179,000 followers, and in 2011, an app for iOS and Android was added to the line-up, so children could track Santa on a tablet or mobile phone.
The website, www.noradsanta.org, is now available in eight languages and features a new online game every day during December, a library of online books, and movies about Santa and NORAD. Then there’s the NORAD Santa Tracker itself which goes live at 2.00am EST on 24 December, and tracks Santa via 47 radar installations, satellites which use infrared sensors to spot Rudolph’s nose, high-speed Santa Cams, and fighter jet intercepts. At least, that’s what the US Air Force press office says.
There’s also a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and an Instagram account. And, to keep up with the latest technology, there’s even an Alexa skill, so children can call out at any time on Christmas Eve, “Alexa, ask NORAD Tracks Santa, when will Santa be at my house?”
This year, 1,500 volunteers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs will, once again, answer over 150,000 telephone calls and thousands of emails from children all over the world. And the NORAD Santa Tracker itself will receive over 20 million visits.
That’s quite something for a technology that originated with one misplaced phone call in 1955.
What of Colonel Harry W. Shoup, the central character of this story? He became known as the Santa Colonel, a title he was proud of throughout a long and distinguished career that included being awarded the coveted Soldier’s Medal for saving another airman’s life when he was a fighter pilot. He went on to receive hundreds of letters every year from people thanking him for answering that phone call in 1955 and then encouraging the US Air Force to track Santa every Christmas. His sons once said he used to carry those letters around with him in his briefcase everywhere.
And that’s probably the most important part of this story. It’s not about believing in Santa, it’s about letting people believe in Santa. That’s a lot more fun than being a Grinch.
The photographs of staff at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs answering calls to the NORAD Santa Tracker line on 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) were taken by Dennis Carlyle and are in the public domain. Their inclusion in this article does not imply or constitute endorsement from the US Department of Defense (DoD).
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