When James Maitland Stewart, the oldest child and only son of Alexander and Elizabeth Stewart of Indiana, Pa., enlisted in the United States Army in 1941, he wasn’t like most privates. For one thing, he was already well into his 30s. For another, he had already been rejected by the military for being too skinny. (The first time around, he was five pounds under the Army’s weight standard for new recruits.) And finally, no other World War II inductee had won a Best Actor Oscar, as Stewart had for his indelible performance as reporter Mike Connor in the 1940 classic, The Philadelphia Story.
Putting his Hollywood career on hold to join the Army Air Corps—a forerunner to today’s Air Force—Stewart ultimately reached the rank of colonel, making him one of few Americans ever to rise from private to colonel in four years. He flew dozens of combat missions, some as command pilot, on sorties deep into Nazi-occupied Europe, and returned from the war on the Queen Elizabeth, covered in medals—including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal.
For LIFE magazine’s September 24, 1945, cover story, photographer Peter Stackpole followed Stewart around his Pennsylvania hometown, chronicling the unsurprisingly wholesome goings-on when the Hollywood star returned home a hero.