Today, I’d like to share the compelling tale of a rather unusual World War II veteran who served in the Polish II Corps. From the time he was enlisted in the army to the day he retired to the Edinburgh Zoo, his presence lifted the spirits of everyone he encountered. Although his life came to an end when he was just 21 years old, Wojtek the soldier bear left behind a legacy that should be shared for generations to come.
In April of 1942, Polish soldiers happened across a young shepherd boy who had rescued a Syrian brown bear cub after its mother had been shot by hunters. The boy proudly showed them the tiny cub, which he had swaddled in a sack, and the Polish forces were immediately taken with the adorable creature. After some negotiating, Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki purchased the animal for the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. The soldiers quickly agreed to call the bear “Wojtek,” which means “Happy Warrior.”
Wojtek was rather sickly when he was first adopted by his new family. He was small, very young, and had difficulty swallowing, but the soldiers were determined to find ways to nurse him back to health. After some trial and error, they found that Wojtek was able to drink condensed milk from a vodka bottle. Delighted, his family began to reward him with other foods, such as honey, fruit, syrup, and Wojtek’s personal favorite: beer. The little cub, despite this odd diet, began to grow and thrive with his adoptive caretakers.
Getting His Bearings
The baby bear was an instant celebrity among the Polish soldiers, and he soon became an unofficial mascot. Wojtek was happy to hang out with the soldiers, especially his best friends, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz. Wojtek was highly observant and he quickly assimilated to human behaviors. As he grew, he enthusiastically mimicked the actions of those around him, developing an affinity for drinking coffee in the morning and smoking (and eating) cigarettes. He even learned how to salute and march on his hind legs along with the troop.
Despite Wojtek’s popularity, his unit encountered some difficulties when they discovered that mascots and pets were not allowed on the battlefield. In order to bring Wojtek aboard a British transport ship in 1943, his unit officially enlisted him as a soldier. The bear, now weighing over 200 pounds, was smugly led onboard the ship after the Poland II Corps gave him his own rank, badge, serial number, and paybook.
After earning his title as a soldier, Wojtek dutifully did his part to help out his unit. During the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1943, Wojtek noticed as his fellow soldiers conveyed multiple 100-pound crates of artillery shells, and he decided to take action. Unbothered by the gunfire, the bear began picking up these heavy boxes (which usually took 4 men to lift) and putting them on a truck or stacking them on top of each other.
Amazed at Wojtek’s bravery and eagerness to help, the Poland II Corps promoted him to the rank of corporal. The 22nd Artillery Supply Company also managed to convince higher-ranking Polish forces to approve a new emblem for their unit: a figure of a bear carrying an artillery shell. Due to Wojtek’s popularity, this emblem was soon emblazoned upon vehicles, pennants, and the soldiers’ uniforms.
When World War II ended in 1945, Wojtek moved to Berkwickshire, Scotland, along some other members of the 22nd Company. According to Aileen Orr, author of Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, the bear was well-loved and enjoyed his time at this Scottish camp. “He was very much a part of the community and attended dances, concerts, local children’s parties,” Orr says. “He was like a dog. He was almost human.”
When demobilization occurred in 1947, it was time for the 22nd Company to say goodbye to their giant furry friend. They made the decision to donate Wojtek to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he would be frequently visited by his Polish friends. They would talk to him in their language and sneak him cigarettes, just as they did during the war.
The lovable bear, now weighing about 500 pounds, attracted media attention as soon as they heard stories about how he served in the war. Journalists would visit Wojtek in the zoo, and he became a regular guest on the BBC’s Blue Peter children’s show. Wojtek enjoyed his comfortable life and the company of his friends until he peacefully passed away in 1963.
I’m assuming that some of you are wondering what the point of this article was, or why I chose this topic to begin with. First, the point of this article was to create something engaging and fun to read; since you’re still reading this, I’m going to count that as a success! Secondly, I believe everyone should know about Wojek’s service. I think we can all agree that sharing his story is far more important than working on the topics my boss suggested weeks ago (sorry, Chris).
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