For 60 years, The U.S. Military has used radar to follow Santa’s flight around the world on Christmas Eve. You can check his progress here.
According to a New York Times article, “the practice began in 1955, when an advertisement in Colorado encouraging children to call Santa misprinted the telephone number, instead giving the number for an air defense command operations center. The director had members of his staff give updates on Santa’s location to children who called.”
But there’s a story behind this story! That director who had his staff tell callers Santa’s progress? He was Col. Harry W. Shoup, and before becoming chief of the combat operations center near the height of the Cold War, he had been commander of Truax Field on Madison’s East Side.
Decommissioned after World War II ended, the base was reactivated in 1951 to guard the skies over parts of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana. Col. Shoup became based commander in February 1953. In February 1954 moved to Colorado to serve as chief of the combat operations center of the Continental Air Defense Command, or Conad, where he unwittingly started the Christmas tradition.
Per the New York Times article, “The photogenic 38-year-old had already been trotted out for major news media to help give America’s defense establishment a more human face. As commander of Truax Field in Madison, Wis., Colonel Shoup had done interviews with Time magazine and with Edward R. Murrow on his CBS program ‘See It Now,’ describing his success in building warmer relations with the local community.”
At the time U.S. citizens were becoming increasingly nervous about military bases located in or near their cities. During the height of the Cold War, Truax had 150 Air Force jet pilots stationed here, flying F89C Scorpion jets. Jet crashes were frequent enough to cause alarm, as this article from the Wisconsin State Journal dated Nov. 25, 1953 attests.
The first headline is “Two More Truax Fliers Lost” after their jet crashed in Lake Superior just five hours subsequent to another F-89C crash which killed two Truax officers here. “… The exact cause of the crash on the Lake Wingra shore probably will not be determined because salvage crews are not able to retrieve parts of the plane that were blasted deep into the lake bed and marsh by the plane’s explosion.”
The second headline is “Pilots Here Avoid Public Risks, Chief Says.” …”Pilots here conscientiously maneuver their planes away from Madison and suburbs to avoid endangering the lives of residents.”
An article in the Racine Journal dated February 3, 1956 sheds more light on the New York Time’s article’s mention of Col. Shoup’s work in “building warmer relations with the local community.” A movie narrated by Jack Webb titled “24-Hour Alert” was based on material supplied by Col. Harry Shoup about his experience as base commander at Truax Field.The article said, “Shoup won over the people of Madison in 1951 to the necessity of the air base.
The man who knew how to soothe a city’s fears about its local air base recognized a PR opportunity in the mistaken call of a little girl to a civil defense base, but he was also a family man who didn’t want to disappoint a child.
As the recent New York Times article relates, “The good-hearted Colonel Shoup had three daughters and an infant son. As he later told the tale, he quickly realized that the newspaper’s misprint meant that Conad would soon be deluged by many other such calls. …the colonel ordered Conad’s telephone operators to share Santa’s location with ‘every child who phoned in that night.'”
That first impromptu effort to trace Santa Claus’s journey to the United States has evolved into a much followed annual ritual that might never have come about without Col. Shoup’s PR experience at Madison’s Truax Field.
Happy Holidays from the East Side History Club! — Ann Waidelich and Sarah White