It’s a story worthy of a Hollywood adaptation. A cuddly bear cub, orphaned in the mountains of northern Iran, grows up to become a soldier in the Polish army and helps fight the Nazis during World War II.
“Wojtek” the bear, Polish for “The Smiling Warrior” or “He Who Enjoys War,” continues to be honored today, German news magazine Der Spiegel reports.
According to legend, the bear was rescued by a young boy in the mountains of northern Iran after hunters had shot the cub’s mother, and was later sold to the Polish army.
The soldiers were part of the so-called “Anders Army,” a unit composed of Polish prisoners of war released by the Soviet Union after it was attacked by Germany, and the cuddly bear cub provided an instant morale boost for the soldiers, many of whom had endured Soviet internment camps.
The troops treated Wojtek like one of their own. “He was just like a dog,” said Polish Veteran Augustyn Karolewski to the BBC in 2008, adding “He drank a beer like any man” and reportedly had a taste for cigarettes, which he would swallow whole.
When “Anders Army” was scheduled to be transferred to Naples to join the allied campaign in Italy, Wojtek was initially denied passage because port officers in Alexandria, Egypt, said only soldiers could make the journey and refused to allow wild animals on board.
The solution? The soldiers made Wojtek an official soldier, complete with a service number and rank.
‘”Corporal” Wojtek reputedly saw combat at the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino in the Spring of 1944. By then, he had grown into a 6-feet, 485 pound bear. Resolved to take advantage of Wojtek’s strength, soldiers trained him to carry heavy crates of artillery rounds. One British veteran was reportedly shocked to see a large brown bear calmly carrying mortar rounds past him during the battle, Der Spiegel reported.
The company soon changed its official emblem to one showing a bear carrying a massive artillery shell.
After the war, Wojtek eventually found a home at the Edinburgh Zoo, where he was a huge draw until his death in 1963 at the age of 22. Today, the unusual bear is remembered fondly as a symbol of solidarity between Poland and Scotland.
A documentary has also been made about Wojtek’s extraordinary journey titled, “Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War.”