Just before Christmas in 1955 Col. Harry Shoup was in his military installation at the Colorado Springs’ Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Center.with a dial-less red telephone at his workstation. Only two people in the world had this telephone number, the President of the United States and a single four-star general. When the telephone rang at the height of the Cold War, it was definitely not business as usual. Col. Shoup answered the phone in his usual no-nonsense demeanor of military precision and efficiency. There was a young voice on the other end of the line asking if he was Santa Claus.

Col. Shoup was annoyed at this obvious crank call and bellowed into the line, “this is Col. Shoup of the United States Air Force, who is this calling?”

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At that point, the young caller repeated his request for Santa and then started crying. Sensing that this was not just a prank call, Col. Shoup immediately reacted. “HO HO HO. Have you been a good boy, son? What do you want for Christmas? HO HO HO.” The young caller calmed down, and had his call with “Santa”. At that point, Col Shoup asked to speak with his mother. When she got on the line, she said they were calling because of the Sears & Roebuck ad that encouraged youngsters to talk to Santa. There was a typo with one digit printed incorrectly, advertising the previously classified telephone number.

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After that call, the red phone rang in quick succession, all children looking for Santa, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus. His staff and officers under his command thought he had lost his senses when they were all under orders to answer calls for Santa Claus.

The airmen had this big glass board with the United States on it and Canada, and when airplanes would come in they would track them. On Christmas Eve 1955, they drew a picture of Santa and his sleigh with eight tiny reindeer coming over the North Pole on the official tracking board as a joke. When Col. Shoup arrived, he asked, “What is this?”

“We’re sorry, sir. We were having fun. We’ll erase it. Col Shoup looked at it for a few minutes, and then what he did next shocked them. He called the radio station and had said, “This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why it looks like a sleigh.” The radio station immediately reported the sighting over the air and then several radio stations would call him like every hour and say, “Where’s Santa now?”

From that night on, tracking Santa became a yearly tradition, carried on by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) when it replaced CONAD in 1958. A new phone number, separate from the red phone, was established and publicized, and people were invited to call in and find out how close Santa was to their home. Every Christmas Eve, military service members staff phones and email accounts and the Santa Tracker Twitter account @noradsanta to keep kids up to date on Santa’s whereabouts.

Harry Shoup died in 2009, remembered by his peers and the public as the “Colonel Santa” who gave a special gift to millions of children of all ages.

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– Chip Barkel, MCNE, SRES, REDM, Toronto Real Estate. Extraordinary Service. Top Results. 

Cover Santas courtesy of TwoSistersSantas.com