photo: metro

  Thomas "Rudy" Inman is congratulated after receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross with Gold Star for flying more than 50 missions during World War II in late 1944. The medal, one of the highest honors for military aviators, was presented by U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla.
-- James Crichlow/Staff

A hero among us
Aviator presented with Distinguished Flying Cross

By Matthew I. Pinzur
Times-Union staff writer

It has been 55 years since Sgt. Thomas "Rudy" Inman flew dozens of bombing missions over the Japanese stronghold of Rabul, raining thunder and flame over New Guinea during one of the most vicious campaigns of World War II.

Then the war ended, and the Jacksonville native moved back to the First Coast. He became a policeman, firefighter and later a member of the Federal Protective Service. For decades, the Marine Corps forgot about him.

Yesterday it remembered. It remembered with a medal, with a ceremony and, most important to Inman, with applause for all the men and women who died before receiving their due.

"I accept this award and honor on behalf of the many people who have not been recognized for the things they have done," said Inman, 76. "I think we should give all of those people a big hand."

For more than 50 missions in late 1944, Inman received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Gold Star. It is one of the highest honors for military aviators.

The Marines blamed the half-century delay on lost paperwork and chaotic war-time bureaucracy. Citations are still presented in such old cases but can be far more difficult to grant. Investigators must often supplement old records with interviews of living witnesses. With their numbers dwindling each year, finding those people is increasingly more difficult.

"It's amazing that after all these years, it's still important enough to the military to give these medals to these old men," said Lola Jay, Inman's sister, who brought her seventh- and eighth-grade students from The Country School to witness the ceremony.

Inman has made a cause of these unrecognized heroes, and handed a folder full of documents and old service records to U.S. Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., who presented the medal.

"He's getting his honors much later than he should," Fowler said.

In the official orders authorizing the honor, Inman is praised for his "undaunted courage, superb airmanship and unyielding devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions."

Those orders were signed by the Marine Corps' top general, James L. Jones, who was an infant when Inman flew.

"Around the country you hear, 'Where have all the heroes gone?' said Maj. Kent Ralston, an inspector with the 4th Marine Division in Jacksonville. "We have one here today."

Behind the Marines in their camouflage uniforms, the Country School students in their school uniforms filed across the dais to personally congratulate Inman.

"It's important," said Shelby Wells, a 12-year-old eighth-grader. "He gave us freedom."