Civil Air Patrol

CAP's Smallest WWII Pilot

spoke with authority as a ground instructor as well as on the big screen

By Maj. Steven Solomon

 

He is described as the only surviving cast member with a significant part in “The Wizard of Oz,” and he still receives fan mail from across the country and around the world. But that’s not what has brought a visitor to the Penney Retirement Community in northeast Florida to talk to him.

Meinhardt Raabe (RAH’-bee), the actor who portrayed the coroner in Munchkinland, joined Civil Air Patrol in World War II as a pilot and ground instructor, and he is only too happy to talk about these five years of his life.

HEIGHT NO OBSTACLE TO FLIGHT

“I was 2 inches short for what the requirement was to go into the Air Force to fly the big boys,” the 4-foot-7- inch Raabe said just a couple of weeks before his 94th birthday. “So, I joined Civil Air Patrol.” He’d heard about CAP from his flight instructor when he was taking flying lessons.

He learned to fly on grass fields and loved when it snowed and the airplanes were fitted with skis. He flew missions every weekend he could for the Michigan Wing and later, after he relocated, for the Illinois Wing in the Chicago area. The airplanes he piloted, all single-engine two-seaters, were made by Taylorcraft, Aircoupe and Piper.

“Over the course of years, I flew everything they made at that time,” Raabe said. “Fortunately, I never had a bang-bang experience,” he said, referring to CAP pilots who tangled with Nazi submarines and were sometimes fired upon for their efforts.

The CAP missions he flew were for the Coast Guard and Fire Service, whose own pilots, he said, were called into military service. His patrols took him over a new military dock that would’ve been used if the Great Lakes’ locks were damaged, and he also looked for dangerous woodland fires.

A MAN OF MANY TALENTS

“I was 2 inches short for what the requirement was to go into the Air Force to fly the big boys, so I joined Civil Air Patrol.”
— Meinhardt Raabe

Raabe, 94, talks about his experiences as a CAP pilot during World War II.

“During that time I was working for a meatpacking company, doing their public relations,” Raabe said, explaining that for more than 30 years he did everything from serve as navigator in the original two-seat Oscar Mayer Wienermobile to act as company spokesman Little Oscar, World’s Smallest Chef.

He recalled that, in the part of the country where he lived, people would ice fish in the winter, and that one year there were several fishermen shacks on an ice flow that broke off and began to float away. He wasn’t on duty when it occurred, but a friend of his brought the fishermen back one at a time in his two-seater airplane.

“That was the most exciting thing that happened at the time,” Raabe said.

When not flying CAP missions, Raabe was a navigation and meteorology ground instructor.

“Many of the people in CAP were hoping, or should I say anticipating, being called into full service,” Raabe said, explaining that many of his students entered the military more knowledgeable because of his presentations.

All of this happened, of course, after Raabe got his famous part in “The Wizard of Oz,” which he said opened doors for him.

TRAVELING THE YELLOW BRICK ROAD

“I heard that MGM was intending to make a movie, that an author named Frank Baum had written a book called ‘The Land of Oz’ populated by little people. It was a visionary type of movie. I got a part in the picture,” Raabe said, crediting his familiarity with phonics and his clear diction for convincing the director to hire him instead of any of the five others who auditioned.

“I was the only one the director could understand,” he said, laughing.

His only lines, later dubbed over like most of the other Munchkin parts, took up less than 15 seconds of film time:

As coroner, I must aver
I thoroughly examined her
And she’s not only merely dead
She’s really, most sincerely dead!

FINDING NEW HORIZONS

“When I went to high school the big guys poked fun at me,” he said. “The challenge was to let them know little people are not a zero quantity. So instead of being a football player, I made my living by public speaking.”

Indeed he did, traveling to 62 theaters across the country as a pitchman for the opening of “The Wizard of Oz,” noting that he is “known internationally by my role in that picture.”

And along the way, Raabe also earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting, recalling that the governor actually picked him up at his graduation commencement at the University of Wisconsin. And when no company would hire him at first because of his size, he later earned an MBA.

After reaching mandatory retirement age with Oscar Mayer, where he had appeared in all the company’s TV commercials for three decades, Raabe had a second career in Philadelphia teaching German and filling in as a teacher’s aide on other subjects such as math. He retired again at age 70.

On Amazon.com, his 2005 autobiography, “Memories of a Munchkin: An Illustrated Walk Down the Yellow Brick Road,” ranges in cost from $4.60 for a used copy to $180 for a signed collectible.

IF THERE’S A WILL, THERE’S A WAY

In 2007, Raabe appeared with six other surviving Munchkin actors for the unveiling of a Hollywood Star for “The Wizard of Oz” Munchkins on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But what he reveals about himself that makes him most proud is not surprising:

“I was never called into service, so I can’t claim to be a veteran. But I wound up being the smallest licensed pilot in uniform for CAP,” Raabe said, noting that only adults served in CAP at that time. “So I used a Boy Scout uniform and just put on the CAP insignia.”

 

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© 2018 Civil Air Patrol National Headquarters. All rights reserved.