The origin of NORAD's Santa Tracker: A typo, a red phone, a friendly colonel

It's almost time for Santa to begin his journey around the world, and that means the volunteers over at NORAD are gearing up to keep tabs on St. Nick with their annual Santa Tracker.

These days the young (and the young at heart) can hop online to follow Santa's progress across the globe, but the tradition started almost 60 years ago with a typo and a phone call.

In 1955 Sears published an ad in a Colorado newspaper encouraging kids to call Santa, but accidentally printed a wrong number. That number didn't reach Sears, or the North Pole, but instead rang up a secret military hotline -- often known as a "red phone" -- manned by U.S. Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup.

Shoup's kids recently joined StoryCorps to tell their memories of the fateful call.

"Only a four star general at the Pentagon and my dad had the number," daughter Terri Van Keuren recalled.

"This was the '50s, this was the Cold War, and he would have been the first one to know if there was an attack on the United States," son Richard Shoup said.

Initially, the colonel thought it was all a Christmas prank, but when he realized the "little voice" on the other end of the line was a kid really looking for Santa, he quickly changed his tune, daughter Pamela Farrell says.

"So he talked to him, 'ho ho ho'ed and asked if he had been a good boy," she explained. Shoup then asked for the little boy to put his mom on the phone who quickly explained the situation and the misprinted advertisement.

"Dad looked [the ad] up, and there it was, his red-phone number," she continued. "And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus."

His children all remember the red phone's new purpose quickly became a big joke in the Colorado Springs office where their father worked. The "Christmas Eve of 1955, when dad walked in, there was a drawing of a sleigh with eight reindeer coming over the North Pole."

By 1998 NORAD shifted its tracking options online, developing its Internet-version of the Santa Tracker and more recently unveiling a mobile app.

All that tracking takes a lot of work even before Santa's flight begins, with workers monitoring weather reports prior to takeoff and even compiling a "threat assessment" as different flight paths for his journey are considered.

Last year 1,200 volunteers answered almost 120,000 calls and the program logged more than 19 million unique visitors to its website.

And while there are more than a thousand volunteers to thank, ultimately a Sears typo and Col. Shoup get most of the credit.

"He was an important guy, but this is the thing he's known for," Van Keuren said of her dad's Christmas legacy.

Richard Shoup agreed: "It's probably the thing he was proudest of too."