In the chaos of World War II, Polish soldiers found themselves strangers in a stranger land. While there, they found a most extraordinary new friend: an orphaned bear cub. But while they initially figured he would be no more than a fun pet to have while fighting on the battlefield, he’d end up astounding them all. Here’s the unbelievable story of how a little cub became a ranked military war hero.
An Interesting Find In Iran
Poland in September 1939 was easily one of the worst places on the planet to be living. A non-aggression pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union saw the country being invaded by Nazi forces from the north and west, and the Red Army from the east. Along with scores of dead, the outcome of the invasion would leave 400,000 Polish prisoners stuck in Siberian work camps.
Once Hitler broke his treaty with Stalin almost two years later, the prisoners were released, ordered to join the fight against the Nazis. As Polish troops and civilian refugees fled the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some wound up far south — in Iran. There, a group of Poles bumped into a young shepherd. And inside his travel bag was an adorable surprise, one that would change their lives.
The Shepherd’s Furry Friend
What the wandering shepherd had in his bag was a Syrian brown bear cub. Despite being a baby, the cub’s short life had already been filled with tragedy. The cub’s mother was tracked down and poached by a group of hunters, and the baby found himself to be an orphan. The strong bond any bear cub would normally form with its mother had been shattered.
When that bear’s mother was put down, his fate appeared to have been sealed. However, the shepherd came upon the bear cub and decided to give him a second chance. It didn’t take long for Irena, a Polish civilian refugee in Iran, to fall in love with the playful fuzzball. It was that young lady’s affection for the bear that would soon see him on the adventure of a lifetime.
Had he been left with the shepherd, the bear cub would have probably lived a life far from the history books. However, the Polish refugee Irena convinced a lieutenant to purchase the bear for her. Together, the caravan would go forth to the capital, Tehran. Once there, the bear cub and Irena would live together for a month in a refugee camp.
Refugee camps are, needless to say, not the greatest places for pets. Chances were, most of the war refugees in the camp were barely scraping by, and scarcely able to feed themselves or a pet, let alone an animal that had such a quickly growing appetite. Irena soon found herself in a situation where she had to give the little bear cub away. However, she wouldn’t give the orphan to just anyone.
A Bear Cub’s Uncertain Future
After a lot of protest, Irena was forced to donate the bear to the Polish Army’s 22nd Transport Company. The platoon of soldiers had quite a journey ahead of them, as they’d be heading to Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and finally Egypt. They’d surely enjoy the company of a bear cub mascot on the way there.
The bear was thrust into a situation that likely none of his species had ever been in before: traveling the wartime Middle East with the Polish military. To begin with, the soldiers figured the cub would be a cute pet, a source of high morale, able to take the soldiers’ minds away from the grim situation that laid before them in the field and at home. That said, there was something very incomplete about the bear.
Wojtek’s Primary Caretakers
The little bear lacked individuality. For a few days, he was simply referred to as “the bear”. What he needed was a name, and the soldiers knew just what to call him. The platoon agreed that the bear would be called by the Polish name Wojtek, which translates to “joyful warrior” in English.
A majority of the responsibilities fell on the shoulders of Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz. It was Henryk who formed the strongest bond with the bear cub. In pictures, on statues, and even in vintage film reels, Henryk is almost always seen with Wojtek. But there was a problem: in the wild, Syrian brown bears eat seeds, berries, fruits, nuts, and small mammals. Henryk had to take a different approach to help raise his friend.
Life On The Road
Wojtek’s life was anything but conventional when compared to an average bear. In his days as a cub, Henryk and the other soldiers kept him on a steady diet of condensed milk. However, as the bear got older, he was simply fed anything that was available to him at the camp.
Late night trips into the base kitchen were not uncommon for young Wojtek. Seeing that he quickly picked up his comrades’ eating habits, he’d also pick up a lot of their other behavioral traits. And that’s precisely how Wojtek would ultimately become one of the most famous bears to ever exist.
Becoming a Soldier
It didn’t take long for Wojtek the bear cub to become one of the boys. He was quick to pick up on the behavior of his laddish companions. Wojtek quickly picked up the art of saluting when greeted. He’d also stay up late with the guys, and drink with them from his very own mug. One of his worst habits was smoking. However, it is said that he would take one big puff and then just eat the cigarette.
Out of everything he picked up from the boys, Wojtek loved wrestling the most. Not every soldier was up for the challenge, but the ones that were never won. While Wojtek would never hurt any of the soldiers, a wrestling match would usually mean a couple scratches and a ripped uniform. But the rowdy bear cub’s time with the soldiers wasn’t all fun and games. Wojtek would soon step into action for the very first time.
Wojtek Saves The Day
By the time the company got to the British Mandate of Palestine, Wojtek had grown from a cute bear cub to a lumbering beast of 200 pounds. He could no longer ride shotgun with a soldier in a truck. However, instead of abandoning their bulky friend, they made arrangements for moving him in crates and truckbeds.
He officially became irreplaceable when a thief entered the camp in the middle of the night. While he expected to walk into some goods ripe for stealing, he instead came face to face with Wojtek. The bear and the man made such a tussle that the soldiers were able to wake up and arrest the bandit. Not long after, Wojtek would accomplish what no bear had ever accomplished, before or after.
Parting Ways With Wojtek?
When the band of soldiers arrived in Egypt, they were assigned to fight along with the British Eighth Army in their campaign against the Italians. This would see the unit go into a two year-long battle with the Axis powers through all of Italy. Certainly, it’d be no place for a Syrian brown bear, and had animal rights organizations seen this, they would not have been pleased.
However, Henryk and the company weren’t about to abandon their longtime companion. As they set to invade Sicily, they had every intention of bringing Wojtek along with them. Sadly, the British transport ship they’d be traveling on was completely against it. Their regulations forbade bringing mascot and pet animals onto the ship. It looked as if Wojtek would have to stay behind. The Poles started putting their heads together.
Looking for a way to get around the British transport ship’s restrictions, the Polish soldiers decided to take Wojtek’s status as a mascot away — and make him an official soldier. Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish army as a private, with Henryk and Dymitr officially tasked as his caretakers.
Wojtek’s nomadic journey through the Middle East had officially come to an end. He walked the gangplank onto the British ship and began a tension-filled journey to war-torn Sicily. They’d soon find themselves surrounded by constant gunfire and explosions. While one might assume that the bear would be going as wild as a dog hearing fireworks on the Fourth of July, Wojtek would actually have an unexpected reaction.
Doing His Part
Wojtek did not shy away from the thunderous pop of war. Rather, he embraced life on the battlefield. As they traveled up through Italy, Wojtek would often travel via tanks. He’d sleep on top of the tank or would stand on his hind legs up there and get a view of the world going by.
As the unit arrived at the front lines of the fierce battles, Wojtek was usually by Henryk’s side. However, there was one incidence where the two became separated. It was Wojtek’s time to shine. As they approached the Axis lines in Monte Cassino, the Polish troops were faced with a heavily occupied abbey, which blocked the Allied powers from Rome. With Wojtek’s help, they’d power through.
Fearless In The Face of Battle
During the battle at Monte Cassino, Henryk was forced to part ways with Wojtek. As his human pal had to rush onto the battlefront, the brave bear was left behind with the soldiers tasked with arming and manning guns. Instead of taking refuge in a corner, he ignored the gunfire and began lifting heavy cases of ammunition and carrying them towards the cannons.
This saved his comrades a lot of precious time. If there weren’t a group of soldiers already on the job, they’d have to leave their guns behind and lift the crates themselves, which was easily a two-man job. Wojtek filled this task consistently until the battle’s end. By the time the abbey was taken, at least 70,000 men had lost their lives on both sides. As the smoke settled, word of Wojtek’s actions would lead to some major changes within the Polish Army.
Becoming a Legend
News of Wojtek’s brave efforts spread throughout his platoon and eventually across the battlefield. Despite bullets whizzing by and explosions booming in the background, Wojtek never stopped bringing over those artillery crates. One can only imagine what ground troops and foot soldiers from the enemy forces thought when they saw Wojtek helping on the battlefield.
In honor of their bear, the 22nd Transport Company changed their official seal to a picture of Wojtek, the once-orphaned bear cub now a war hero, holding a shell and marching fearlessly towards gunfire. As the troops continued to battle through Italy, Wojtek stayed by their side until the war ended. Life would then take a much different turn for the bear.
Life After War
At first, after the war’s end, the Polish soldiers were living on an airfield in rural Scotland. Slowly, however, all the soldiers that Wojtek had been traveling and fighting with for three years began packing up and heading back home to Poland. And life wasn’t about to slow down for the bear.
Word went around Scotland that a Syrian brown bear was on hand and the masses couldn’t wait to feast their eyes on him. There were a number of articles written about the bear, and a slew of organizations appointed him as an honorary member. In 1947, Wojtek kissed the military life goodbye and was discharged at the rank of corporal. What was this extraordinary creature to do with his life now?
The decidedly fuzzy Corporal Wojtek was donated to the Edinburgh Zoo after he was discharged from the military. While some might think that his life took a sad turn, going from a life surrounded by action and friends to one behind bars, Wojtek was actually still living quite well. He’d constantly make appearances on a children’s television show, as well as interview spots. On his best days, Wojtek would get a visit from one of his former comrades.
When one of his Polish army buddies visited him at the zoo, the bear immediately sat down and gestured for a cigarette. Old habits definitely die hard! Wojtek passed away long after the war, in 1963, aged 21. His statues stand in multiple locations across Europe and are often seen decorated with flowers. On a rare occasion, a statue might even be visited by a veteran that served with this larger than life bear cub hero.
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