‘Traveling airborne into hell’: The WWII story of Delaware’s Ray Firmani

DOVER — Mission accomplished for a former World War II lead pilot and the first-time book author who chronicled his life.

Following about 100 hours of conversations over two years, Mitchell M. Topal turned 97-year-old Ray Firmani’s recollections into far more than a tactics-heavy review of combat actions and units involved. The work was designed to appeal to far more potential readers than a select audience.

What emerges in “Against All Odds — The Ray Firmani Story” is a tale of an ordinary man from Delaware living in a time when fulfilling one’s duty came first among all other significant challenges.

Thus, the subtitle “A True Story of Combat, Heroism and Love in World War II” applies.

“I tried to make it more personal from the perspective of a citizen-soldier because some military books will put you to sleep,” Mr. Topal said.

Revisiting the 25 harrowing bombing missions — all but one over Germany — in the war’s closing stretch begins on the 146th page of a 205-page book (edited by Katherine Ward), with plenty of space devoted to life before and after the conflict.

“It’s more than just military things, it sums up a lot of people’s lives and what was going on in the world at the time,” said Mr. Firmani, who passionately described his relationship with the love of his life, his late wife and soul mate Elaine.

Taking a seat in front of the lead bomber in flight formations, then-2nd Lt. Firmani (23 at the time) and nine other crew were crucial to an entire mission’s success — the planes that followed released their loads based on what the point Superfortress did.

Ray Firmani in WWII“The Germans knew that, too, and targeted the B-17 in front knowing that destroying it would throw off the entire plan,” Mr. Firmani said.

At the end, U.S. bombers flew 5,000 feet overhead where “you can spit and hit something.” The flak guns below — increasingly condensed due to enemy retreats further into the home country — had the same improved advantages of aim. Carrying a three-ton assortment of high explosives to drop increased the peril immensely.

“Flying over the larger cities was like traveling airborne into hell,” Mr. Firmani explained.

No bragging allowed

After decades of reticence about his time with the 486th Heavy Bomber Group in the U.S. Army Air Force, Mr. Firmani opened up to an author for a project hatched in December 2014.

The time was right, with that era’s altruistic war veterans literally becoming a vanishing breed and memories of their valiant contributions gradually fading from national consciousness.

“I think why most vets don’t talk is because they feel lucky to have come home alive and they feel like it would be bragging compared to the son of a guns who didn’t make it,” Mr. Firmani said.

Plus, as Mr. Firmani once told one of his children, “Son, I was too busy making a life for you. I left the Army with just a shoebox full of money and not much else.”

The meetings between veteran and author came in four-hour blocks, including scrapbook reviews and deep conversations, along with digging into history for official confirmations of dates and events.

“If you write a book make sure it’s fiction because if it’s not there’s a whole lot of research,” said Mr. Firmani, a Delaware Aviation Hall of Fame member who resides in Elsmere, rides a bicycle daily and reportedly navigates the Internet like folks many decades younger.

“I stay healthy because I always keep moving,” Mr. Firmani told the author, now considered a great friend bonded as unofficial family member.

“You can’t hit a moving target.”

Among the reader reviews posted online at againstallodds-therayfirmanistory.com, Johnny Taylor, Executive Director of the Dover-based Air Mobility Command Museum said, “Very refreshing to read a book that goes to the heart and soul of a real person, interweaving personal joys with tragic sorrows during the World War II era.

“Against All Odds — The Ray Firmani Story’ is based on true life events pulled from the memories of a man who survived to tell his story! Highly recommended.”

While evoking the memories of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” Mr. Topal digested just what turned men into veterans, supported by their sacrificing family members as well.

“To me they had gone through so much adversity in the Great Depression and not being sure if they’d have food on the table that when the war happened they thought nothing of signing up and going to fight for America,” said Mr. Topal, president of the Delaware Press Association with several family members — including his father and step father — who served in World War II or contributed mightily to the efforts at home.

“They saw it as just another hurdle to clear. They did it bravely, got back and re-started their lives. They saw serving as just another obstacle they had overcome in their lives.”

The self published book can be purchased for $20 plus shipping and handling through the Web site againstallodds-therayfirmanistory.com and Amazon.com. An EBook version is available online at barnesandnoble.com.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Mr. Topal didn’t rule out writing another lengthy story.

“I would love to write a second book but as my wife points out I didn’t accomplish a single thing on my ‘honey do’ list for over a year,” Mr. Topal said.


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