What Happened to Cause the Doomsday Phone to Ring Off the Hook?

The red phone rang repeatedly. It was The Phone — the phone designated for calls that went well beyond the classification of “urgent.” This phone was used to signal the end of the world. Crew Commander Colonel Harry Shoup stared at the phone, attempting to calm his nerves before picking it up, prepared to hear the words he dreaded that would usher in the end of the world.

Crew Commander Colonel Harry Shoup

It wasn’t just Col. Shoup who was surprised and deeply concerned about the ringing phone. The servicemen stationed at CONAD that night tensed and exchanged worried glances. They had all trained for the unthinkable, and if this was the call they all prayed would never come, the next couple of hours might very well be their last.

CONAD, (Continental Air Defense Command) was the forerunner to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command). It had the responsibility of monitoring the airspace of the entire world, keeping on continual lookout for any incoming nuclear attack. It was also the focal point for any first-strike initiative by the United States to commence nuclear operations against its enemies. This phone call was possibly the announcement that Doomsday had arrived.

With a deep breath, Col. Shoup picked up the phone. Those nearby strained to see if they could identify the voice of the person on the other end. There were very few people who had that number. One of those people had the most recognizable voice in the world: the President of the United States.

Shoup listened and then pulled the receiver from his ear. He stared at it a moment before speaking into it. “Who did you say this is? You want me to do what?”

The radar and missile operators listened to the one-sided conversation with wide eyes. The colonel placed the phone back on the hook. Before he could offer any explanation, it rang again.

Two calls on that phone in the span of a few minutes had to mean something big — and terrifying — was in the works. The servicemen braced themselves for the orders they were about to receive. The last thing they expected to hear from the colonel were the words he spoke into the receiver: “Is your mother there?”

Over the next several minutes the phone kept ringing within moments of Shoup hanging up from the previous call. Had you been there that fateful night, you, too, might have been scratching your head as you heard the highly-decorated, ultra-professional soldier speak into the phone, saying “How do I know? Well, asking that question is one sure way to get on the naughty list.”

When the phone rang again, and Shoup answered by saying, “Ho, ho ho!” the servicemen were certain their commanding officer had flipped out. It was only then that he had enough time to explain what was going on that was so urgent that it was causing the Doomsday Phone to ring off the hook.

The date was December 24, 1955. The calls were all from little children in the Colorado Springs area, wanting to speak to Santa Claus. The local newspaper, The Gazette, featured an advertisement that day, telling children they could call Santa and tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Unfortunately, the phone number in the advertisement was off by one digit. The phone number provided, ME 2-6681, happened to be the highly-classified, unlisted number for the red phone at Colonel Shoup’s desk.

Advertisement in the Dec. 24, 1955 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette, providing the incorrect number for calling Santa.

Relief spread through the command center as the men realized the world was not about to end in a series of fiery explosions. One of the men placed a picture of Santa on the large map that had been designed to track incoming nuclear missiles. That’s when Shoup saw an opportunity for some positive press coverage. He ordered the public relations officer, Colonel Barney Oldfield, to issue a press release that CONAD had picked up Santa’s sleigh on radar and was tracking it. The press release noted, “CONAD, Army, Navy and Marine Air Forces will continue to track and guard Santa and his sleigh on his trip to and from the U.S. against possible attack from those who do not believe in Christmas.”

Varying accounts exist of what happened that fateful night. Once thing is certain: the communications system that was designed to usher in the final war of human history ended up being used to send a message of peace on earth and good will toward men. What happened that night by accident quickly developed into an enduring Christmas tradition. Every year children of all ages are encouraged to follow Santa’s progress as he delivers gifts around the world. They are able to monitor Santa’s location, thanks to NORAD Tracks Santa and the dedicated men and women of NORAD who take a few hours out of their busy schedules to spread the message of peace and hope while simultaneously preparing for Doomsday.

Read more fun facts about Christmas.

Read more fun facts about the military.

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