Philip Cicconi is an Italian-American and son of an Italian immigrant. He was born shortly before the war began and was around six years old when it ended. Philip’s family lived in Philadelphia during the great Depression and during World War II. He had a cousin who served during the war, and Philip himself went on to become a member of the taskforce assigned to Operation Argus—a nuclear weapons atmospheric testing operation. Due to improper testing conditions, Philip developed multiple cancers from presumed radiation exposure.
In this interview, Philip shares his recollections of his childhood during World War II, gives his insight into community life growing up in Philadelphia in the mid 1900’s, and shares a story about his cousin Nello, who was a soldier who had survived combat in the war, but was shot by a German woman before he had the opportunity to go home to his family. He also speaks about joining the Navy later in life and then coming home and finding himself in a position where he wanted to obtain an education.
[It was] almost an anti climax. You know, there wasn’t the deluge of gifts that you get today. I can remember several years ago, the whole family congregated at our place and started laying gifts under the tree, and it was a mound. It was an absolute mound. And my one son-in-law, who was a real piece of work, looked over and said, “No wonder the muslims hate us” because of all of this stuff, you know, the wealth.
Memories of Air Raid Drills
I can tell you that one of the scariest things for us, there would be air raid drills and blackouts. And when the sirens would sound, you know, you had to turn off all your lights, pull your curtains and shades and blinds, and be under a table, and I was terrified. You know, It was really scary. I had no idea. you know? I had no idea at all. I never projected far enough to say, Oh my God, there’s going to be a bomb on my head. It’s nothing like that. It was just like man, I don’t like this. This is really uncomfortable, you know? Hiding, lights out, people whispering, I don’t know what they were whispering for.
WWII Veteran Killed By Civilian
I had a cousin—really a horrible story which we never quite understood. I had a cousin whose first name was Nello, N-E-L-L-O. And this guy was really bright and took a lot of scholastic awards in the same high school that I went to, and he was given medals and everything. Well, he went into the war, and he actually survived combat. And I remember, I can remember this very distinctly being with his father. And it was like the holidays, and they’re singing that old song “Let it Snow.” And his dad was thrilled that the son would be coming home unharmed. Somehow there was an incident in a bar, and a woman shot him in the head with a Luger and killed him. And it was just awful. It was, it was terrible to the point where his mother lost her mind. She had to go to a sanitarium and had electric shock therapy and all that. When she came out, she was like a ghost of her former self. There was nothing behind the eyes. Sad, really sad. I would have been like five or six. And I remember him, and the thing I remember about him is he really liked me, you know? And he would hug me and everything. And yeah, that was—I so looked forward— ’cause when you’re a kid and someone fawns over you like that, you know, it’s very meaningful. You can’t help but wonder what would he have been like working, raising a family and everything. He was probably in his mid-twenties, something like that. He had the whole world before him, you know?.
Job at Merck, Sharp & Dohme Corp.
I got a job in Philadelphia at Merck, Sharp, & Dohme. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. It was a pharmaceutical place. This street is Sharp Street. Well, that’s the same Sharp component that was in Merck, Sharp, & Dohme – a pharmacist, okay? So I’m making $2.00 an hour. I’m living large, right? It was pretty good. I was happy. And so, I was doing okay, working in the bottle department. I worked for a very nice black man Walter Dingle. Walter Dingle was a former prize fighter and just treated me so well. My workmate was Bill Ware, another black guy. We were like buds, you know? We got along really well, and I was like happy, happy. And then they called me. They said, We need to tell you that you’ve been bumped. And I said, What do you mean bumped? What does that mean?” “That means that there’s been a layoff, and you’re being sort of downgraded. You have an option of either leaving or going on the janitorial workforce.” I said, “Well, what’s the janitorial workforce?” They said, “Well, you come in at night, and you mop the floors and clean and everything. ” I said, “Oh, just like being in the navy swabbing decks again, right?” So I went in and started working. Everything was fine. Well, Merck, Sharp, & Dohme was way ahead of their time in integration. It was a very diverse workforce. So, they got me one night, We have a special job for you. I don’t know what it was all about, but they said, You need to go to the men’s restroom, and we’re going to have you clean all around the toilets. And I said, Geez, I don’t think I like this, you know? So I went to the janitor’s closet, gloves, you know, scouring powder, and I went in there and now I got my nose right in that toilet, you know? And I’m not happy. As a matter of fact, I’m welling up with tears. And some of the brothers who worked there were taking great delight in stepping over me, you know, on purpose. So, Boy, what are you doing down there, boy? You cleaning those shitters? they said. And I thought, You know, I can’t, I can’t do this. You know? So I finished, and the very next night I went right to Temple Tech and enrolled in Machine Design Technology and started getting some education. And, I didn’t like the mechanical engineering thrust so the next semester I went to St. Joe’s and did seven years at night. Got my Bachelors, got an Associates. And St. Joe’s was perfect because of all the philosophy, the logic, and epistemology, metaphysics. It really got my brain ordered up, you know,—how to think logically and all. ‘Cause prior to that, it was like a popcorn machine [makes popping noise].
Operation Argus, Task Force 88
I didn’t understand it at the time. You know, it was a secret operation in the South Atlantic. I didn’t know a thing about it in detail until the following year, and I read about it in the Philadelphia papers. Yeah, I was on a ship. We went, we steamed for 39 days which is a long time. We crossed the equator, kept going south almost to—we were almost to Antartica. We just missed the line by like an inch or two. And then made a left, and we went south of Cape Town, South Africa. And we had a ship there that was converted to fire missiles into the atmosphere that were tipped with atomic warheads. And they did three shots. And the objective was to fly airplanes through this atomic cloud to determine what would happen to their navigation systems with the radiation. And they proved that this would indeed screw up navigation on incoming missiles and aircraft. And that was—and this was like—this was really hot stuff. And you can go into youtube and see a whole explanation of this under Operation Argus, A-R-G-U-S. And you’ll see how it’s all explained. And when you see it, it will be put in a context of this is brilliant technology. Well, unfortunately for us, the 4500 sailors in that task force, there were no provisions made for detox in any way, and some of us got sick. And we were inside the ships; we didn’t know what was going on. We went into what’s called Condition Alpha at that time. That means you button up everything. All the portholes are closed. You’re totally in the dark. You have no idea. And so I, you know, I came out, and a couple years later, I got a tumor.