Back on December 24, 1955, the red telephone at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) Operations Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado began ringing.
The red phone meant it was either the Pentagon or CONAD commander in chief General Earle Partridge on the other end. In other words, it meant the call was important.
So US Air Force Col. Harry Shoup, director of operations at the center, rushed over to the phone and grabbed it.
“Yes, Sir, this is Colonel Shoup,” he said.
Only silence in response.
“Sir? This is Colonel Shoup,” he said.
“Sir? Can you read me alright?”
Finally, a soft voice responded on the other end.
“Are you really Santa Claus?” asked a little girl.
Shoup was obviously stunned for a moment. He thought it had to be a joke. But then he realized someone must have screwed up the phones, so he decided to play along.
“Yes, I am,” he answered. “Have you been a good little girl?”
Well, the red phone kept ringing that night. Not because of Soviet nukes or fighter planes headed to the US, but because of a typo.
As it turns out, a local newspaper ran a Sears Roebuck ad inviting kids to contact Santa.
“Hey Kiddies!” the ad read. “Call me on my private phone and I will
talk to you personally any time day or night.” The ad listed Santa's
direct line, but the number in the copy was off by a digit. Instead of
connecting to the special line Sears set up with a Santa impersonator,
kids wound up calling a secret air defense emergency number.
Shoup had to pull a few airmen aside and give them a special assignment. They had to answer the phone and give callers Santa's current location as they “tracked” him on their radar.
From that night on, tracking Santa became a yearly tradition.
NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) has since replaced CONAD.
Now there is a new phone number separate from the red phone. Every Christmas Eve, military service members staff phones, email accounts and the official Santa Tracker Twitter Account to keep kids up to date on Santa's whereabouts.
Harry Shoup passed away in 2009, and he is remembered by his peers and the public as the “Santa Colonel.”