The night the red phone rang

In 1955, NORAD had yet to exist.  It was the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD).  The mission was the same as it is today: to be able to respond to a nuclear strike if needed.  Today, the threat comes from a lot of bad actors in the world; in 1955, it was the Soviet Union.

Stalin died on March 5, 1953, and chaos following the brutal tyrant's death continued to heighten tensions between the U.S. and the USSR.

The commander of CONAD was Air Force colonel Harry Shoup.  Shoup had two phones on his desk, a black one and a red one.  If the red phone rang, and it was not an exercise, a four-star general, the only other person in the world who knew that number besides Shoup, would let him know he was the third person in America to know that the Soviets had launched an attack on the U.S.  If the president was not reachable, he was the second.  His job was to respond with a nuclear launch if needed.

Shoup was married with young children who eventually understood why he could not be home on certain days or nights, as happened on Christmas Eve in 1955 when the red phone rang.  It was widely believed at the time that if the Soviets were going to launch in December, it would be on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and Shoup was prepared to do his job.

Shoup answered the phone, praying it was an exercise.  What he heard was someone asking if he was Santa Claus.  He thought one of his own airmen had found the number that none of them should have and was playing a prank.

From the Coloradan, Dec. 21, 2018, by Erin Udell, "Meet the Air Force colonel behind one of Colorado's sweetest Christmas traditions":

"And this little voice says, 'Are you Santa Claus?'" she said. "And Dad is now, he's pissed. He thinks one of his staff is playing a joke on him."

He realized that it was a child on the other end that he had unintendedly put into tears.  He did not get that position without taking the job seriously, and he expected the same from his airmen.  Had the child not started crying, he never would have believed that it was not one of his airmen.

From the Air Force Times, Dec. 24, 2020, by Stephen Losey, "'Is this Santa Claus?'A misprinted ad and a good-hearted colonel sparked NORAD's Christmas tradition":

It was only when the child started crying that Shoup realized it wasn't a prank call. So he switched gears, Farrell said. He broke out his best ho-ho-ho, and asked if the kid had been a good boy that year. He then asked to talk to the boy's mother, who alerted him to a pretty big mistake.

The local Sears ran a clever marketing ad to have children call and talk to Santa on his private number.  When the number was placed, one digit was off.  The newspaper accidentally ran Shoup's highly classified number for his red phone.

After checking the ad for himself to verify what had happened, he had his airmen assist him in answering the red phone.  Prior to that, if any airmen working there had to answer the phone, it was because his commander had been killed, and there was no officer left to answer the phone.

The red phone rang off the hook throughout the night, with the airmen and Shoup playing along.  It was a pleasant break from a job that was deadly serious all other times.

On the glass board that tracked airplanes in the United States and Canada, one of the airmen put up a picture of Santa's sleigh over the north pole.  His airmen worried they had taken things too far.  An apology was made along with an offer to take it down.

From the same Air Force Times article:

"Next thing you know, dad had called the radio station and had said, 'This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center and we have an unidentified flying object,'" Van Keuren said, laughing. "'Why, it looks like a sleigh.' Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and say, 'Where's Santa now?'"

The following day, he contacted the phone company to get a new phone number.

The following year and every year after that, they kept the Santa tracker going to this day.  NORAD may have replaced CONAD, but the tradition that started at the tail end of CONAD has drawn the attention of the world.


In fact, what started because of a typo has flourished and is recognized as one of the Department of Defense's largest community outreach programs. 

Each year, the NORAD Tracks Santa Web Site receives several million unique visitors from more than 200 countries and territories around the world. Volunteers typically answer more than 130,000 calls to the NORAD Tracks Santa hotline from children across the globe.

It was, I believe, a true Christmas miracle.  The odds that Colonel Shoup's red phone number would be publicized and have children call believing that it was Santa's private line are astronomical.  The tradition that began with a wrong number helped countless children get through the height of the Cold War each Christmas.

Bob Ryan is a writer who has an MBA and is a science fiction writer and mostly historical blogger.  He has been a weekly blogger at the Times of Israel since 2019.  He is an American Christian Zionist who staunchly supports Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.

Image: Screen shot from NORAD, public domain.

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