History, cinema, and books are replete with stories of animals displaying exemplary courage and loyalty. The tale of Private Wojtek, the soldier bear, is no different. In fact, it is nothing short of awe-inspiring, more so because it’s a true story.
The legend of Wojtek begins in 1942, when he was found in Iran by a local boy and traded for a few tins of food to soldiers of the Polish Army stationed nearby. The soldiers cared for the Syrian brown bear cub and fed him milk from empty vodka bottles, fruits, honey and marmalade. Over time though, he began imitating his caretakers, consuming beer and cigarettes. Of course, he ended up mostly chewing the cigarettes instead of smoking them. Soon, the endearing bear became an unofficial mascot of all the Polish units stationed in the area. He moved with the company to various countries.
When the bear traveled with the Polish army to Europe to fight alongside the British in the Italian Campaign, they soon figured out that having animals as mascots was banned. This was when the bear came to be enlisted as Private Wojtek (smiling warrior) among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. It was in the Battle of Monte Cassino that Wojtek achieved the status of a war hero. Several accounts have been provided of his services in transporting numerous crates of ammunition, without dropping a single one. When the war ended in 1945, the bear was sent to Berwickshire in Scotland, along with a few of his fellow soldiers.
The role played by Wojtek in the war against the Nazis has been widely recognized and remembered over the years. An effigy of the bear holding an artillery shell was adopted as the official emblem of the 22nd Transport Company. A book titled “Wojtek the Bear, Polish War Hero,” written by Aileen Orr, was published last year. This year, a £200,000 bronze statue is being erected in his honor in Edinburg, where he lived after the war ended.
Wojtek spent his last days at Edinburg Zoo, visited by former Polish soldiers and several journalists. He died in December 1963, at the age of 22. Today, Wojtek is not only considered a war hero, but also a symbol of the part played by the Polish in WW2.