The Santa Colonel & NORAD's Santa Tracker

This is the story of how a typo led to the U.S. goverment's sophisticated Santa tracking system.

posted on December 24, 2023
The Santa Colonel1

In December 1955, Air Force Col. Harry Shoupe manned his desk late on Christmas Eve at Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., a strategic nerve center that would later become the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). It was the height of the Cold War, and he was the officer in charge of the men and women assigned to monitor the skies over North America. The threat of a potential nuclear holocaust at the time made the mission a critical and deadly serious one.

When the red hotline that connected the center directly to the Pentagon rang, it's possible the thought of World War III entered his mind as he went to answer. The career military man, who served in World War II, Korea and spent 28 years in the U.S. military before retiring, remained businesslike and stoic when he picked up the phone with a snappy, “Colonel Shoupe.”

Instead of a general barking orders on the line, it was a small child. “Is this Santa?” was the timid inquiry.

No one, except U.S. military with high-level security clearance, knew that phone number. Col. Shoupe was taken aback at first, but ultimately delivered his best Saint Nicholas imitation, patiently answering questions and reassuring the chile that Santa was on schedule.

Col. Shoupe asked to speak to the child’s mother, who was apologetic, but explained they saw the number in a Sears & Roebuck ad. It was a typo of historic proportions, because soon, calls flooded in from good little boys and girls, as well as the naughty ones eager to offer excuses.   

He quickly briefed his staff. Each of the youngsters were eager to connect with Santa’s North Pole headquarters to talk to the big man or an elf, and they were to answer the phones, explaining Saint Nicholas was aloft, on the radar and safely delivering packages. The typo, and Col. Shoupe, launched the NORAD Tracks Santa tradition that continues to this day.

A lot has changed since that first fateful call, though. Today, children of all ages can visit NORAD’s official Santa tracker to watch his progress on Christmas Eve. During all of December, the website has games, holiday music, virtual tours of workshops at the North Pole, elves, sleigh technical data and much more. It’s hypnotizing for a child, decent nostalgic fun for adults and, yes, you can still call. It’s toll free at (877) HI-NORAD.

Every year, more than 1,000 uniformed and civilian volunteers staff the facility to answer e-mails, tweet and keep everyone updated. A dedicated YouTube channel includes videos and trailers, and one short video even explains how that wrong number launched a program that’s thrived for nearly seven decades.   

To all the men and women in our nation’s uniforms standing guard on the front line of freedom this holiday season, thank you. Your service doesn’t always garner headlines or medals, but seemingly little duties—like Col. Shoupe’s patience on Christmas Eve—make a huge difference felt for many years to come.       

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