Air Force Veteran Harry Shoup, the “Santa Colonel,” started the Christmas tradition of NORAD tracking Santa Claus.
Harry Shoup was born in Bessemer, Pennsylvania, in September 1917. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, the precursor to the modern Air Force, in 1940. Shoup had a long and distinguished military career: He served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; he received a Soldier’s Medal for saving the life of another airman and retired with the rank of colonel after 28 years of service. However, Shoup may be best remembered not for his actions on the battlefield, but for a telephone call he took one cold winter night.
In December 1955, Shoup was stationed at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) in Colorado. The Cold War was in progress, and a phone call to the CONAD operations center could potentially signal the outbreak of war with the Soviet Union. One evening, when Shoup was the commanding officer on duty, the phone rang.
“Colonel Shoup!” he answered in typical military fashion.
A young, timid voice on the other end of the line asked, “Are you Santa Claus?”
Shoup – a stern, no-nonsense officer – was initially angry, believing that someone was playing a joke on him. He demanded an explanation, but when the voice on the phone began to cry, Shoup realized that he was speaking to a child. He quickly put on his best impression of Santa Claus, talked with the child for some time and then asked to speak with the child’s mother. The embarrassed woman informed Shoup that retail company Sears had published an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting children to call Santa directly on his private phone line.
A misprint by the newspaper meant that the number that appeared in the ad was not the correct number to call Santa; instead, it was the unlisted number for the CONAD operations center. Realizing that CONAD might be flooded with calls meant for Santa Claus, Shoup told his staff to report Santa’s location to any child who phoned in to the operations center. His kind gesture began a holiday tradition that has endured for over half a century.
Over the decades, the tools and technology used to track Santa have changed. In 1958, CONAD became the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), which took over the duty of tracking and escorting Santa on his yearly journey. In the 1960s, NORAD provided updates on Santa’s position to radio stations; in the 1970s, television infomercials explained how NORAD tracks Santa; in the 1990s, the Santa Tracker got its own website, which receives millions of visits each year. Today, in the 21st century, NORAD allows users to track Santa through emails, smart devices and social media accounts. Each Christmas Eve, NORAD’s effort to monitor and protect Santa is staffed by volunteers who answer over 100,000 phone calls – an average of more than one incoming call for every second of the day – from curious children worldwide.
“I swear to goodness,” said Terri Van Keuren, Shoup’s daughter and a volunteer for the annual NORAD Tracks Santa program, “you can’t put the phone down without it ringing in your hand.”
Shoup retired from the Air Force in 1968 and, according to Van Keuren, fondly remembered his role in establishing the Santa-tracking tradition. He enjoyed sharing the story of the misprinted phone number and kept a collection of thank-you letters he had received from people all over the world. In a 2014 interview with StoryCorps, Shoup’s family said that being the “Santa Colonel” was his proudest accomplishment.
Shoup died on March 14, 2009, at the age of 91.
We honor his service.
Writer: Stephen Hill
Editors: Annabelle Colton, Merrit Pope
Researcher: Giacomo Ferrari
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley