Fire Watch: The Santa Colonel & the Volunteers Behind NORAD’s Hunt for St. Nick

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December 25, 2022
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When the red telephone began to ring, Col. Harry Shoup feared the worst. It was 1955, at the height of the Cold War, and Shoup was in the operations center of the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado. CONAD, as it was known then, stood as the early warning system for a Soviet attack. So the ringing of the red telephone never meant anything good.

What happened next launched the now-named North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, into a decades-long tradition to track Santa and bring joy to children around the world. And it started with a simple act of kindness, a Cold War scare and a youngster hoping to tap into a little Christmas magic.

So who runs NORAD, and how do they know so much about Santa? On this episode of Fire Watch, we learn about the decades-long tradition and speak to the service members who track Santa on Christmas. Plus, a special reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. (Ret.) Martin Dempsey.

Main Topics

  • Drew F. Lawrence tells the story of the Santa Colonel, a Cold War scare and a kid calling in to one of the most important phones in military history.
  • Thomas Novelly, Military.com’s Space & Air Force reporter, describes what it’s like to work in the NORAD call center on Christmas Eve in interviews with the volunteers who make the holiday magic happen.
  • Guest Gen. (ret.) Gene Renuart, former commander of NORAD, lends his voice to tell the special Santa Colonel story.
  • Guest Gen. (ret.) Martin Dempsey, the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, performs a special reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nick,” or “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

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Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Zachary Fryer-Biggs, Gen. (Ret.) Martin Dempsey, Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart, Capt. Alexandra Hejduk, Preston Schlachter, Drew Lawrence, Cade, Thomas Novelly, NORAD Capt., Amy Bushatz

Drew Lawrence

When the red telephone began to ring, Col. Harry Shoup feared the worst. It was 1955, at the height of the Cold War, and Shoup was in the operations center of the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado. CONAD, as it was known then, stood as the early warning system for a Soviet attack. So the ringing of the red telephone never meant anything good.

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

Can I help you, sir? Hello? Can you read me alright? This is Col. Shoup.

Cade

Are you really Santa Claus?

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

What? Is this a joke? Just what do you think you’re–

Drew Lawrence

The quick-witted officer realized that it was no joke, but a mistake. And a good-hearted child on the other end of one of the most important telephones in history thought he was calling Santa. So, to the surprise of his staff, Col. Shoup, who was a father himself, did what any good dad would do when presented with the opportunity to bring a little Christmas joy.

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

Of course I’m Santa Claus. We have this phone set up just to talk to you. Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho! Have you been very good this year?

Cade

Yes. I want to tell you what I want for Christmas. And can you bring something for my mommy too?

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

Well, I’d love to hear what you’d like for Christmas. And of course, I will try to bring something nice for your mom. Would it be all right if I talk to her now.

Drew Lawrence

Col. Shoup heard the kid pass the phone to his mother. She explained that her child dialed a number listed in a Sears Roebuck ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper, so the legend goes. It featured a picture of old Saint Nick and an invitation to call him on his private phone at any time. But the phone number was apparently one digit off, and suddenly, Col. Shoup, a stern, no-nonsense Air Force officer, found himself playing the jolly fellow.

The Santa Colonel, as he became known as over the decades, ordered his staff to answer the phone for any child wanting to know the location of Santa as he delivered toys around the world. And through that act of kindness, a Cold War scare, and a youngster hoping to tap into a little Christmas magic, a decades-long tradition was born.

Today, 1,500 volunteers at the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, answer as many as 150,000 phone calls each Christmas Eve from good-hearted children wanting to know where Santa is. And on this Christmas Eve, we want to show you what it means for those volunteers to pick up the phone to spread that cheer. Plus, retired General Martin Dempsey, who served as the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, performs a special reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, or as it is known today ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

For Military.com, my name is Drew Lawrence. It is December 23rd. And this is Fire Watch.

Thomas Novelly, Air & Space Force reporter for Military.com, thanks for joining us, I want to note that you are joining us with a guest — your pup June, who is honestly — for our listeners who can’t see — the spitting image of the Grinch’s dog from the animated show, you know, with the antler haphazardly tied to his head, but I want to thank you both for joining us and helping spread a little cheer on this episode.

Thomas Novelly

Yeah, totally Drew and she’s a very good dog. She might be on the naughty list for interrupting this podcast. So I appreciate your patience. And I gotta say, just opening the show — that was a really cool way to start it with that first NORAD Santa phone call and doing a recreation of it. That was really nifty.

Drew Lawrence

No, yeah, I appreciate it. Special thanks to General Gene Renuart, who we’re going to hear a little bit from later. He was the former commander for NORAD. And he actually voiced Col. Shoup for us. So that was that was pretty special to have him on and do that.

Thomas Novelly

I gotta ask: who was the kid?

Drew Lawrence

Yeah, so that was our executive editor, Amy Bushatz, that was her, her neighbor, Cade, who was a really good sport about voicing the youngster who apparently called into this secure line to one of the Air Force’s most, you know, important attack response entities during the Cold War to talk to Santa. And, you know, I’m glad you’re here to talk to us about that story, because it’s just one of those, you know, military stories that just, it’s shrouded in this funny and wholesome legend. And I just want to note, I think, you know, most of the public when they hear that story, and they hear about NORAD, it’s usually on Christmas Eve around this time. But as you know, NORAD does more than that. Can you kind of tell us about what this entity is and what they do for the other 364 days of the year?

Thomas Novelly

Yeah, totally. And I think you bring up a great point. And that’s if you were to stop somebody on the street and ask them what NORAD is, they’ll either a.) not know what it is or b.) they’ll say, ‘oh, NORAD, they track Santa Claus.’ So, you know, the way that they advertise they track Santa Claus: that’s basically what they’re doing 24/7 365. Right. They’re advertising that they track Santa by using radar, jets in the sky. And that’s basically what NORAD’s mission is. So for those that don’t know, NORAD stands for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and it’s this joint organization between the US and Canada. Its mission is pretty simple. Well, it’s complex, but the idea is simple. It’s to provide air monitoring and protection for the airspace between the continental United States and Canada. And basically, this means watching airspace for potential disturbances, potential adversaries, unknown aircraft, missiles, things like that. And so it kind of makes sense, right for why NORAD would be tasked with monitoring for Santa. I mean, once a year, he’s coming into American airspace flying his magical sleigh at breakneck speed. And, you know, NORAD’s Santa tracking website even talks about times where their jets, primarily American F-22. twos and Canadian CF-18s have been scrambled only to find that the disturbance on their radar was just saying it going on his annual Christmas Eve run.

Drew Lawrence

Taking it back, right. It’s 1955. It’s the Cold War. Col. Shoup gets this call from a kid on the now infamous red telephone. That’s kind of where this whole thing started. Right?

Thomas Novelly

Yeah, that’s where the tradition for kids calling into NORAD to find out where Santa is located — that’s where that started. But I want to take you back seven years earlier to 1948. And that’s when the Air Force issued a report that sounded a little something like this.

Radio Operator

Our early warning radar net to the north gives following spot position report of object detected heading southerly direction: one unidentified sleigh, powered by eight reindeer, at 14,000 feet; heading, 180 degrees. Interceptors alerted and vectored in but unable to contact. Estimated time of arrival over target 2400 hours 24 December 48.

Thomas Novelly

And with that report, given nearly 74 years ago, NORAD tracked Santa for that first time. And you’re right. You know, the Santa Colonel really solidified this tradition of kids calling in to get the live updates of when Santa Claus would be coming to their house. And it really kind of started this long standing tradition.

Drew Lawrence

Gotcha. So, you know, as I understand it, when NORAD Tracks Santa today, it sounds a little different than that 1948 report. Right?

Thomas Novelly

Right. Technology’s changed a lot. And so now it’ll sound a little smoother. It’ll sound a little something like this.

NORAD Capt.

This is Air Force Captain Sable Brown of the North American Aerospace Defense Command with this hour’s Santa Claus flight report. Minutes ago, NORAD, Santa-cam spotted Santa flying over beautiful Athens, Greece. It looks like Santa is also headed towards the countries around the Baltic Sea. NORAD will continue to monitor Santa’s Yuletide flight, just as we monitor the skies of North America 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Drew Lawrence

I mean, that’s awesome. It’s kind of cool to see that thread from, you know, 1948 to now. But I want to hear more about this so called Santa Colonel, right. And the little kid that supposedly called into a secured Air Force line, potentially the most important telephone in the world at that point, during the Cold War.

Thomas Novelly

Right. So as you talked about in the beginning, there’s this legend of the Santa Colonel as we know it, but we got to put that fun story also into some context of the Cold War. I mean, it was scary, right, there was the threat of the Soviet Union, it was an uncertain time. So getting that phone call would be alarming, right? And the fact that he handled it with with that kind of compassion, and being able to kind of spin it forward is, is really cool. But, you know, it’s also a comfort for the public to know that there wasn’t anything that the Air Force couldn’t track in the sky. And that includes Santa, you know, and with that comfort and security of saying, you know, we’re always watching, even when Santa is coming out on Christmas Eve, NORAD really solidified itself as a household name, and also just a holiday tradition, right: that go-to for people around the world to not only track Santa, but to actually call in and speak to those service members and volunteers who are doing the tracking and relaying that info to kids.

Drew Lawrence

You talked to some of those service members and volunteers behind the tradition. You know, who are these people and what did they tell you about the tradition?

Thomas Novelly

It’s mostly made of service members, it’s service members from NORAD, who are very familiar with the tradition and volunteered their time on Christmas Eve. But also, it’s made up of volunteers around Colorado Springs, who you know, work in the military, who are veterans, as well as some civic leaders and just people who are connected to the military community in some way…spouses, kids…who volunteer to, you know, answer these phone calls. And the one takeaway I had was that it was just all excitement. Everybody had this desire to give back to play a part in this really long tradition that’s gone on for decades, there was just this eagerness to deliver some Christmas magic, some Christmas cheer to folks. One person I spoke to, for example, was Captain Alexandra Hejduk who is a public affairs officer for NORAD. And she really helps kind of described the reasons why people volunteer their time to go work in the call center.

Capt. Alexandra Hejduk

People are waiting for months to sign up. And they’re just so excited to be a part of the NORAD Track Santa program. So it’s a lot of fun. Volunteerism has a little bit of selfishness to it, if you will, because it makes you feel good to do something for other people. And I think the NORAD Tracks Santa for us — and for a lot of members — it’s the same thing, it makes us feel so good that we’re able to, to give back to our communities in this way. And so it’s something we gladly do. And we’re really happy to parallel and existing missions.

Drew Lawrence

What does today look like for the 1500 service members and volunteers who operate these phones in the call center?

Thomas Novelly

So Christmas Eve was just this culmination of months of planning. So in some way, it’s kind of this sigh of relief that the day is finally here. And then that is just also replaced by a bunch of excitement. So, you know, these volunteers who are from NORAD, you know, neighboring bases in Colorado Springs, the day starts when it’s still completely dark outside. And they come in for these two hour shifts, and sometimes even volunteer for multiple shifts, like two or even three. So you’re talking about working anywhere from two to six hours, and the phones are constantly ringing. There’s Christmas music playing there’s hot chocolate and coffee to keep everyone energized. Community partners, businesses donate food from doughnuts and pastries to sandwiches for lunch, and sometimes even Christmas dinner. And those phones, they just don’t stop ringing the entire time. People are laughing, they’re singing along to music. And then they’re just picking up the phones, answering calls from all across the country, and even all across the globe. One person I spoke with Preston Schlachter, he’s a volunteer, but he’s also an NORAD civilian now. And he’s worked for a decade now in the call center in some capacity. And he described kind of what that energy and enthusiasm is like there in the operating center.

Preston Schlachter

That everybody is so pumped to be there. It’s really, really cool. And then when you’re taking calls, the call volume is so intense that as soon as you take a call and answer and hang up, the phones already ringing again. It’s just like that nonstop. So at the end of your two hour shift, it’s hard to believe that you’ve been there that long…

Drew Lawrence

And so I want to ask, why does NORAD do this? And I don’t mean this to sound like a grinchy question. But some troops are staying up manning these lines for kids on a pretty family-oriented holiday, taking time away from from their own families to do this, which is a great thing. But I’m just wondering was there anyone who expressed any chagrin, you know, once they were in the call center, or having, you know, volunteered to do this task?

Thomas Novelly

That’s a great question. And honestly, fair, right. Like, I know, I would be grinchy if I had to give up my Christmas Eve to, you know, go and answer a bunch of phone calls and get up super early in the morning. But I think that’s what was so unique about this is that for a lot of these folks, the NORAD, you know, Santa tracking center has become kind of a home away from home. I mean, there’s some service members who, you know, either are there in the area, and this has just become a part of their Christmas Eve day, you know, they know they’re going to take two hours before they start opening gifts or wrapping presents and, and making dinner that they’re going to spend time in the call center. And there’s also those service members who won’t be able to make it home. And then this is kind of a way for them to get in the holiday spirit. So I think that’s a big part of it as well. And I spoke with General Renuart about this. And he described the kind of community and home away from home that the call center has become for a lot of the service members.

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

You know we have a lot of young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen who come in and volunteer before they go home to their Christmas or they’re here for Christmas and not able to get home. They come out of that experience with with just this huge smile on their face that they’ve made a difference.

Thomas Novelly

Another person who told me about this, Schlachter, who we talked about earlier, he’s a former Airman and he described the energy to me too, and there’s just no grinching to be found on the operations floor. There’s tons of energy and he described the scene for me a bit.

Preston Schlachter

It’s just amazing because we’re starting this event four in the morning here in Mountain Time, right? I’m amazed at the level of energy, like there’s no one ever dragging their feet to come in there, whether you’re working like the call center, getting there an hour before to make sure that the lights are on the computers are ready to go for that first shift at four o’clock. There’s this this high energy vibe, even in the darkest hours of the morning, everyone, whether you’re working or you’re volunteering to take those calls, high energy, we got music playing , the coffee’s brewing…

Drew Lawrence

And Tom, I think the piece that you wrote about this touches on a really excellent point. Because sometimes the military and in some ways the world can seem a little grim at times, it can seem like a grim place. But there is this really special time that you highlighted, this light moment where service members whose jobs aren’t necessarily making people happy, get to do just that for a couple hours on Christmas Eve.

Thomas Novelly

Yeah, that’s what I think, really touched me the most when I was reporting on the story was just that, you know, the military is a tough job. I mean, it’s filled with stressful assignments, career uncertainty, difficult decisions, frequent moves across the country and the globe, being away from loved ones and friends. And, you know, I don’t think everyone in the civilian world maybe fully understands what some of the sacrifices are, or even fully appreciate it. So, you know, with the Santa tracking mission, it’s just this small way that servicemembers have found that while they’re in uniform, they can provide some joy. And even the public might not know what NORAD does, but the joy of being able to say, ‘Oh, hey, I’m keeping track on Santa.’ I mean, that brings so much joy to kids. And there’s just this understanding that what they’re doing is providing, even if it’s a whimsical thing, some good and some levity and some much needed joy in the world. I think General Renuart described that best and he was telling me that while he was the commander of NORAD, just kind of the morale boost he saw in the call center every Christmas Eve when people were volunteering.

Gen. (Ret.) Gene Renuart

You realize that as you are focused on your your day to day, very serious, NORAD NORTHCOM mission of defending the air of space and seas surrounding our nation and with with the challenges and threats that are out there that you can also take a deep breath and step back and realize that there is still substantial good in the world and that you can even through your military service bring an element of humanity and civility and compassion in a way that is very different from what you do when you put on your uniform and walk in during a normal duty day. So it’s, it really does provide…

Drew Lawrence

Okay, so Tom, I think we’re getting to the question that everyone’s been waiting for. But if I or any of our listeners wanted to call in to find out where Santa is this year on Christmas Eve, how could we do that?

Thomas Novelly

Y’all can call into 1-877-HI-NORAD to call into the volunteers who are manning that call center and they’ll give you the up to date info on where Santa is. They’ll be working all day, so they’ll be picking up the phones constantly. NORAD also puts the route live online at their NORAD Santa Tracker website, which is NORADsanta.org. And they also have an Apple and Android app where parents can keep tabs on Santa on their smartphone. And then also Facebook and Instagram for NORAD will be posting updates and keeping everybody in the loop of the big man’s journey.

Drew Lawrence

Thomas Novelly I know you said that kids will be calling in but you can, you can count me in for a call to NORAD. I appreciate you helping us tell the story. Thank you so much to you and to your little Grinch dog, June.

Thomas Novelly

My pleasure and happy holidays to all the listeners.

Drew Lawrence

Listeners, please join me in welcoming the 18th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey for a special reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore.

Gen. (Ret.) Martin Dempsey

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds;

While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a flash,

Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

When what to my wondering eyes did appear,

But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,

I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,

And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the housetop the coursers they flew

With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof

The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around,

Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.

His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!

His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,

And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;

He had a broad face and a little round belly

That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,

And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head

Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,

And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And laying his finger aside of his nose,

And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Drew Lawrence

Thank you so much to Thomas Novelly and his excellent reporting on the volunteers behind the NORAD calls. And thank you to Generals Martin Dempsey and Gene Renuart for lending their voices to this special episode. And of course, thank you to the troops and volunteers who run NORAD for helping tell this holiday tale. Credit to executive producers Zach Fryer Biggs and Amy Bushatz. And to our listeners, thank you for the wonderful year. We at Military.com wish you the best going into the New Year. As always, thanks for listening. A little bonus here at the end for you. The raw, unfiltered talent of Cade and Amy helping us put the Santa Colonel recreation together. Cade, thank you so much for your help. You really helped make this program special.

Cade

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!

Amy Bushatz

Oh, wow. That was good, Cade!

Cade

Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!

Amy Bushatz

Hey, Huck where’s your phone, man? So Cade.

Cade

Do you need something?

Amy Bushatz

Yes, I do need something. Okay. All right. Here’s what we’re gonna do, okay. I’m gonna say a line and then you’re just gonna say it after me.

Cade

Okay.

Amy Bushatz

Okay, so here’s what I’m gonna say. Just like if you were on the phone, okay. All right. So: “Are you really Santa Claus?”

Cade

Are you really Santa Claus?

Amy Bushatz

You want to do it one more time? “Are you really Santa Claus?”

Cade

Are you really Santa Claus?

Amy Bushatz

That was so good, okay. All right, so now you can say…I’m gonna…I can ask you if you’ve been a good boy. If Santa Claus asked you if you’ve been a good boy, what would you say?

Cade

I would say…yes.

Amy Bushatz

Okay, so can you say, um: “yeah?”

Cade

Yeah?

Amy Bushatz

All right. Have you been a good boy?

Cade

Yes…

Amy Bushatz

Can you say: “Yes, I want to tell you what I want for Christmas and if you could bring something nice for my mommy too.”

Cade

Yes..okay I think I can memorize half of that.

Amy Bushatz

Okay, so say: “yes, I want to tell you what I want for Christmas and if you could bring something for my mommy too.”

Cade

Ok…go? Yes…I’m not gonna tell you what I want for Christmas, but I want you to bring something for my mommy too

Amy Bushatz

Okay, hoow about: “I am going to tell you what I want for Christmas. And if you could bring something for my mommy too.”

Cade

I am going to tell you what..uh…I want for Christmas and I am going to tell you too.

Amy Bushatz

Okay, how about this: “I’m going to tell you what I want for Christmas. And can you bring something for my mommy too?”

Cade

I’m going to tell you….I want…

Amy Bushatz

I’m gonna tell you what I want for Christmas. And can you bring something for my mommy too?

Cade

I’m going to tell you what I want for Christmas. And can you bring something for my mommy too?

Amy Bushatz

Oh, that was so good. Okay, so have you been a good boy?

Cade

Have you been a good boy?

Amy Bushatz

I’m going to ask you, “have you been a good boy?” and then you’re going to respond.

Cade

Okay.

Amy Bushatz

Cade, have you been a good boy?

Cade

Yes, I have.

Amy Bushatz

Okay…are you going to tell me what you want for Christmas?

Cade

Uh…sure.

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