Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, was born in 1942 and initially sold by an Iranian boy to Irena Bokiewicz, a young Polish Refugee, after he found the bear cub in a bag near Hamadan after his mother had been shot by hunters.
As the bear became to big for Irena Bokiewicz, she decided to donate him to the Polish Army. Here, in Palestine, the bear was adopted by the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps and was named “Wojtek”, pronounced Voytek. Less than a year old and having problems with swallowing he was fed with condensed milk from an emptied Wodka bottle. Wojtek grew up together with soldiers of the 22nd Transport Company whilst spending most of his time with the 4th Platoon. His closest friends were two young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz whom also acted as his caretaker.
Wojtek was often rewarded with beer, which eventually became his favorite drink. Next to drinking beer and wine, he occasionally also enjoyed smoking cigarettes, wrestling with his fellow comrades and was taught to salute when greeted.
Wojtek the Bear
Only a few soldiers dared to take him on in a wrestling match as some times the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched or have their uniforms torn. The rest of the men were happy to watch. In Palestine, Wojtek became a hero one night by capturing a thief who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping.
Together with the Company which adopted him, he moved to Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. In Egypt, when the Polish forces departed to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian Campaign, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a Private and got listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company to get him on a British transport ship as it was not permitted to transport animals.
In the Italian campaign, the Polish II Corps soon prepared to break through the German defenses at Monte Cassino where it successfully captured the stronghold after much bitter fighting. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped with transporting ammunition without ever dropping a single crate and carrying heavy artillery shells. In recognition of his actions, he was chosen as the official emblem of the 22nd Supply Company (by then renamed to 22nd Transport Company).
During the conflict, Wojtek found himself at the artillery firing line where he was seen to move crates of ammunition close to a truck where he was chained. Henryk had been assigned to take care of the bear that day but when he was ordered forward as an artillery spotter, he had to leave Wojtek alone. Always inquisitive and willing to copy what the soldiers were doing, he began picking up the crates and moving towards the cannons. The sounds of gunfire did not concern him and he displayed courage in his willingness to participate in the action. (Source)
By the end of World War II he achieved the rank of Corporal. After the War ended in 1945 he was transported to Scotland along with parts of the Polish II Corps. Following demobilization in November 1947, Wojtek was given to the Edenburgh Zoo where he would spent the rest of his days, often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, some of whom would toss him cigarettes.
Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 21. At the time of his death he weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) and was over 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.
- Cutchin, James A.: Once A Hero: The Story of Private Wojtek Bear WWII Soldier. Outskirts Press.
- Mikula-Deegan, Krystyna: Private Wojtek – Soldier Bear. Matador.
- Paulin, Garry: Voytek the Soldier Bear: Niedzwiedz Zolnierz O Imieniu Wojtek. Garry Paulin.
- Orr, Aileen: Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. Birlinn.
- Tak, Bibi Dumon; Watkinson, Laura: Soldier Bear. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
- Blessed, Brian: Wojtek: The Bear That Went to War (UK) (DVD)