Wojtek the bear served in the Polish Army during World War II.
The second World War was pivotal time in human history. Everyone all around the world was involved or affected in some way by the largest human conflict ever. Because literally millions of people, soldiers and civilians alike were involved, many incredible stories simply have not been given their due.
One of those stories is that of a Syrian brown bear cub that unexpectedly joined Polish soldiers in combat. This soldier bear was more than a simple mascot, the animal earned the rank of corporal and saw real combat in Italy.
The story of Wojtek the bear who served in WWII is wild and strangely uplifting. No one could have guessed when the bear was discovered that it would leave behind a legacy with Polish troops well into the 21st century.
How did a bear end up in the Polish Army?
The unusual story of Wojtek begins in Iran in 1942. Polish forces had been busy fighting the Soviet Union and the Nazis for a few years at this point following the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Soviets and the Germans. Many of them were forced to evacuate to the Middle East to regroup in Iran with other allied forces. It was here that a local boy first brought a young bear cub to the attention of the Polish soldiers. Wojtek was an orphan, his mother having been shot by a hunter. The young bruin was small and extremely weak.
It may have ended with a tragic story of a wild animal dying with no mother if not for the actions of a young woman named Irena (Inka) Bokiewicz. She purchased the cub and began caring for it, feeding it condensed milk. Because supplies were limited, Bokiewicz had to improvise using an old vodka bottle to feed the rapidly-growing young bruin. Approximately three months later, Bokiewicz could no longer care for the bear and gave it to the soldiers of the 2nd Transport Company. They are the ones who named the bruin "Wojtek," which roughly translated means "Happy Warrior."
The young bear grew fast and quickly became one of the soldiers, who no doubt got a morale boost from the animal's antics. Before the soldiers knew what was happening, Wojtek was past needing milk and started eating regular foods. It seems the bear picked up some bad habits from the guys though. It enjoyed mimicking the troops. The bear started drinking wine and beer, which it learned to drink from the bottle like a person. The soldiers also taught Wojtek to smoke cigarettes, which they would light in his mouth. Although most of the time, after being lit the bruin simply swallowed them.
As the bear grew larger, some of the soldiers tested their strength by taking on Wojtek in friendly wrestling matches, which were a spectacle for the rest of the soldiers in the company. The bear became so friendly with the soldiers that it sometimes even slept with them like an oversized dog. The bruin even learned to march on its hind legs!
Wojtek officially joins the army.
The 2nd Transport Company later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. As expected during a time of extreme conflict, the company travelled all over the Middle East to places like Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and even Iraq. Everywhere the company went, Wojtek went too, usually drawing a crowd of curious onlookers. The bear was also growing, having reached nearly 200 pounds.
Eventually, in 1943, the Polish Army joined up with the British Eighth Army. Things were heating up for the Italian Campaign to start and for the troops to make a push to liberate Italy.
There was just one problem. British High Command had some strict rules about soldiers keeping animals in their company. Rather than this being the end of the story, the soldiers came up with a clever loophole to keep their furry friend around. They drafted him into the army! The bear became Private Wojtek, complete with his own serial number and spot on the active duty roster lists. Amazingly, this move worked and Wojtek was allowed to stay with his friends. We should note he was not entirely unsupervised. The bear was given two handlers. While Wojtek had many friends in the army, Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo were said to be his favorites, so it only made sense to name them as his caretakers.
Wojtek serves under fire.
In 1944, Wojtek the soldier bear went from war time curiosity to absolute legend. His unit went to Italy where they took part in the Battle of Monte Cassino. While Wojtek did not officially fight or kill anyone, he did provide a vital service during the conflict. Wojtek saw his fellow soldiers transporting heavy boxes of ammunition and decided to help entirely on his own. Remember how we said he liked to mimic his human friends? Many of the boxes would have taken four men to move otherwise.
Walking on his hind legs, Wojtek carried heavy 100-pound boxes of artillery shells all by himself. The clever bruin then stacked the boxes or brought them to the artillery crews who were in the process of shelling Axis positions. Amazingly, all the witnesses to this incredible event say that Wojtek never showed any signs of fear of the explosions and gunfire. Once the battle was over, the army decided to give him a promotion to Corporal for his bravery and service under fire.
The 22nd Artillery Supply Company also honored Wojtek after the battle by making a depiction of the bruin carrying an artillery shell their official emblem. It was safe to say that the only soldier bear in history made a mark on the lives of those who knew him.
Post war life and modern legacy.
Wojtek stayed with the company through the rest of the war. In 1945, with things winding down and demobilization for Wojtek's unit imminent, the company was sent to Berwickshire, Scotland. As usual, he was a hit with the local Scottish residents. For many of the soldiers in his company though, it was a bittersweet time as many were forced to say good-bye to their bear friend before they were sent home.
The story does have a sweet ending though. After leaving the army, Wojtek got to retire. He was sent to live at the Edinburgh Zoo. As you might expect, "Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero" was a huge hit with tourists. As the years went on, many of his fellow soldiers did return to see him.
Between features on local news casts and BBC TV documentaries, Wojtek lived the good life for the remainder of his days. He ballooned up to nearly 1,100 pounds before his death in 1963 at the age of 22. Wojtek's memory has not been forgotten either. Numerous statues have been erected of the soldier bear over the years including one in Edinburgh where thousands of tourists learn the fascinating story of the only soldier bear to serve in World War II. Someone needs to make a movie about this bear one of these days!