OSAGE, Minn. — It was a real time tracking of Santa Claus for a former Grand Forks Air Force Base and Minnesota man more than 50 years ago this Christmas season.
It was also the most memorable experience of a 23-year military career for B-52 bomber crew member Archie Henderson, now 88 years old and living in the northwest Minnesota community of Osage.
It occurred on Christmas Eve in 1964 when the crew on his flight was chosen to alert the world that Santa's sleigh was heading from the North Pole to the United States.
On that memorable day, he was part of the 319th Bomb Wing, a division of the Strategic Air Command that was the first line of defense and attack in the event of enemy activity from the north through top secrets flights.
Henderson, a radar navigator bombardier, and the rest of the crew on the B-52 bomber departed from Grand Forks Air Force Base at 1 p.m. on Dec. 24 on their regularly scheduled 24-hour patrol known as "Operation Chrome Dome."
"We flew near the north tip of Greenland by the North Pole all of the time," he said. "There was an Air Force base in Tooley, Greenland. There were no trees, only dirt and rocks and snow. Once we saw lights the men stationed there had strung on a tower for a Christmas tree, but we never imagined we would be tracking Santa from the North Pole."
Known as "The Santa Claus Express," the Christmas Eve flights that started in the 1950s were kept top secret from those participating in the mission until right before the mission.
"We got the call an hour before the flight that our mission was to track Santa's flight for NORAD (North American Defense Command) as he moved south from the North Pole," Henderson said.
"We were the first to tell the world we saw an object going south. The pilot asked me to verify the object on radar and the pilot made announcements about Santa's location. There we were, an armament with two nuclear bombs in our payload and combat ammunition, and instead of a military mission, our mission that Christmas Eve was to alert the nation to Santa's flight."
NORAD's broadcasts of Santa Claus sightings, which Henderson said continued until after he retired in 1971, were heard by millions on radio and television stations all across the U.S. and Canada, including Henderson's wife, Elizabeth, in Grand Forks and sons, Paul, who was 2, and Steve, who was 16.
"My two girls were with their mom in California and may have been listening, too," he said. "It's what kids did on Christmas Eve back then."
The B52 broadcast concluded with the pilot announcing that an unknown object was descending over the U.S.
"The pilot said, 'It's an interesting image. It's not an airplane. It's a sleigh and a reindeer,' and concluded with 'Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas," Henderson said.
NORAD took over from there, broadcasting images of the radar blip on television screens that represented Santa and giving updates of his location all through the night.
When the Santa Express returned to Grand Forks at 1 p.m. on Christmas Day, Henderson was not able to tell his family and friends he was part of the Santa Express flight because it was classified information.
"It was classified 10 years after the mission," he said.
After joining the Air Force in 1947 and called to active duty in 1951, he served in the military for those 23 years.
Henderson then took over the family farm near Osage where he still resides today. He also earned degrees in agriculture and elementary education, teaching in Tucson, Ariz., and in Park Rapids, Minn., where he said he was a substitute teacher "in every grade" as well as agriculture, special education, shop, and math in the 1970s and 1980s.
He is an active member of the V.F.W. and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), where he has shared his Santa Express adventure with others.
"Now I want to share my story with more people," he said.
Origin of NORAD Santa Tracker
According to an interview on National Public Radio's Story Corps, the NORAD Santa Tracker began when the Sears store had a typo in their 1955 ad in a Colorado Springs newspaper for Santa's private phone line.
Instead of the store number, they listed the number for Air Defense Commander Colonel Harry Shoup's, a secret hotline located in Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado Springs, Colo.
This was during the Cold War and the number was for a "red phone" at the Continental Air Defense Command that only he and a four-star general at the Pentagon could access. The phone was to be used for notification of a Russian attack on the U.S.
The NPR interview states that when Shoup answered the phone and a child asked to speak to Santa Claus, he thought it was a joke at first. But when the child's mother came on the line and said the number came from a Sears ad, he found the ad and verified this was the case.
The phone kept ringing, and Shoup put airmen on the phones to answer the calls as if they were Santa. Children today can still call Santa at 1-877HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) on Christmas Eve to get updates on Santa's exact location, but most track him online through the NORAD website: www.noradsanta.org.
NORAD originally stood for North American Air Defense Command and was later changed to North American Aerospace Defense Command.