Wojtek the Soldier Bear

After a long series of murders, disappearances and diseases, I thought it was about time for a story that was a little more lighthearted! I saw this one on Season 14, Episode 2 of Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Channel: [1]

On April 8, 1942, a group of men, who had been held in a prisoner of war camp in Siberia, were being transported through the Middle East to Egypt. The men were from Poland and had been taken prisoner when Russia invaded in 1939. They were released on the condition that they fight alongside the English until the end of the war.

These men became the Polish 2nd Corps. One group of soldiers within the 2nd Corps was the 22nd Transport Company’s Artillery Division. Amongst their ranks was a special soldier named Wojtek (pronounced Voytek).

While traveling through the mountains of Iran, two Polish soldiers encountered a small boy carrying a large sack which contained a small, malnourished bear cub. They believed that the cub had lost his mother to a hunter and offered the boy some food in exchange for the baby bear.

They named him Wojtek, which translates to “happy soldier” and nursed him back to health by feeding him condensed milk from a vodka bottle.

Wojtek would join the men around the campfire, eat, drink and even wrestled with them. He learned to love drinking beer and eating cigarettes. When he would finish off a bottle of beer or wine, he would look in the opening wondering where it all went.

These men had already been through hell living and working in an internment camp in Siberia. Wojtek was good for the mens’ spirits as they headed off to fight in the war.

Until he got too big, Wojtek would ride in the passenger seat of the transport vehicles, but eventually had to ride in the back.

The problem came when it was time to travel to Italy. They wouldn’t allow animals on the transport, so the men wrote to their commander. He sent down permission to make Wojtek an enlisted soldier in the Polish military. He was given a serial number and a paybook. He was never paid, but because of his size, he was given double rations.

He caused quite the stir on an Italian beach when he climbed out of the transport vehicle and ran out to the water scaring all the girls that were sunbathing.

Wojtek loved water. He would sometimes get himself (and the men) in trouble by sneaking into the bath house, turning on the taps and playing in the water, which was rationed. He made up for these shenanigans one night when he found a man in the showers in the middle of the night. He growled and swatted at the stranger, alerting his friends. The man was arrested and turned out to be a spy. His interrogation provided the men with helpful information about the enemy forces.

Wojtek would see his first real combat at the Battle of Monte Cassino, a rocky hill approximately 80 miles southeast of Rome. By now, he was an adult brown bear standing 6 foot tall and weighing almost 450 pounds.

Wojtek watched his friends head off into battle and then come back to collect ammunition. He began carrying 100 pound boxes of ammunition up to where the men were fighting. He didn’t seem to be afraid of the gunfire or the sounds of bombs going off all around him. The men fought day and night with their trusty bear tirelessly bringing them supplies. Thanks, in part, to Wojtek’s heroics, the Polish forces were able to capture the hill at Monte Cassino and help force the Germans out of Italy.

After the battle was over, the official insignia of the 22nd Artillery was Wojtek carrying an artillery shell.

By the end of World War II, Wojtek and his men were in Scotland. Wojtek’s handlers felt that it would be best for him to stay in Scotland so he went to live at the Edinburgh Zoo.

There he lived, visited by his Polish friends and making lots of new ones, until 1963, when he passed away at 22 years old from an issue with his esophagus.

In November 2011, a parade through Edinburgh included a eulogy for Wojtek and in November 2015 a bronze statue was erected in Princes Street Gardens in the city to commemorate his bravery.

Other memorials to Wojtek include:

  • a plaque in the Imperial War Museum in London
  • a sculpture in the Sikorski Museum in London
  • a sculpture in Weelsby Woods in Grimsby, England
  • a statue in Park Jordana in Krakow, Poland
    A video summary of this week’s post can be found at

https://youtu.be/nWw1ki2IX5E

Sources/Photo Credits

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