Monday, September 3, 2012

This Polish Soldier Was a Real Bear

He stood six feet tall and weighed more than 500 pounds. He joined the Polish II Corps’ 22nd Artillery Supply Company in 1942 while that unit was training in Iran for deployment to Italy. And he was without doubt the company’s favorite member. He was so popular, in fact, that his image was used on the unit’s official insignia. His name was Wojtek. And he was a real bear. Really.

Wojtek was actually a Syrian brown bear. The men of the company traded two cans of meat for the small cub, raising him as their mascot. He grew up to be a very gentle bear who loved wrestling with the men of his unit. He also liked his beer, holding the bottle with his paws and draining it.

Wojtek joined his company on the voyage from Alexandria, Egypt to Taranto, Italy. One story has it that the Poles issued paperwork declaring their bear as an official member of their unit in order to circumvent a British rule prohibiting animals on ships, and he was known thereafter as Private Wojtek.

The 22nd Artillery Supply Company’s insignia shows Wojtek carrying an artillery shell. This image was the result of a joke played on a writer, who was told that the bear had unloaded and carried ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Stanislaw Kroczak, a platoon commander, debunked the story in a recently published book, saying that even though the bear was strong enough to handle the shells, he was unable to actually pick them up. But I suspect the story will persist despite Kroczak’s explanation.
Wojtek remained with his unit throughout the war. He accompanied his unit to a resettlement camp in Scotland in 1947, and remained at the Edinburgh zoo until his death in 1963. The gentle giant was a beloved member of his unit and a symbol of hope and inspiration for everyone who knew of him.

Karen Jensen wrote a great story about the much-loved giant, complete with numerous photographs, which appears in the September/October 2012 issue of the magazine World War II.

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