Ray Firmani was a B-17 co-pilot in the 486th Heavy Bombardment Group of the mighty 8th Air Force in World War II, flying high over dark skies as shells exploded around him. He completed 25 missions in Germany and France and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary heroism.
But on the morning of Sept. 17, two days before he turned 100, with Sen. Tom Carper on hand to honor his service and present him with a letter signed by himself, Sen. Chris Coons and U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, Firmani was enjoying life.
With everyone looking on, he burst into a giggle after making a joke about all the wrinkles on his face.
That’s just the kind of guy he is.
Firmani grew up in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood and has been a Delaware resident for 95 years. He is the son of poor Italian immigrants and had to assume the role of head of the family soon after his father died when he was only 5.
He went to Wilmington High School and was a part of the cheerleading squad.
“I was too small for football, so I joined cheerleading, and the girls liked me,” Firmani said.
While talking to Carper, Firmani revealed that his secret to long life is “the many friends I made and my wonderful wife.”
He went on to share some war stories, including one in which he almost died, before giving Sen. Carper a tour of his Elsmere home, where he has lived since 1950.
Every nook and corner of Firmani’s home reflects his identity.
There is a small rectangular space in the house, near the large red sofa, which narrates his life story through pictures from his time in the Army and life with his family.
Much of the house and his conversations are filled with memories of his wife, Elaine, whom he married two weeks after their first meeting. They spent 56 years together before she died.
“He never remarried after Elaine; he truly loved her,” said Mitchell Topal, who wrote a book on Firmani’s life called “Against All Odds.”
There is a separate wall in the house titled “My friends have made the story of my life,” adorned with photos of Firmani with his close companions.
His friends have been important to him, Firmani said, and given that he outlived most of them, he now strives to make new friends through Facebook.
“My friends have all died, so I am joining new friend groups, making new friends and doing new things,” Firmani said. “I believe that strangers are friends that we don’t know yet.”
Although Firmani turned a century old on Sunday, Topal said he is “still very much a young soul.”
“He still rides his bike, and he mowed his lawn until a year ago, and he only stopped because the machine broke,” Topal said. “Sometimes I would visit and see him fixing his roof, and I am like, ‘Are you crazy?'”
One of the reasons for his long life, according to Topal, is that he always keeps moving.
Firmani still holds a strong passion for flying. For his 99th birthday, he flew a SNJ-4, a single-engine plane designed for the military in the 1930s, and soared high over Delaware.
“He was doing loops, flying it upside down and doing all sorts of things,” Topal said.
When asked what his plans were after, he said, “I plan on flying again.”
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