Remembering Private Wojtek, the soldier-bear who fought in World War II

The Second World War has provided a seemingly endless array of fascinating stories — not least of which is the curious tale of an orphaned brown bear who was taken in by the Polish army and made an active member of the troop. As unbelievable as it sounds, Wojtek the bear was an official member of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps — a soldier-bear who not only raised morale, but who actually contributed to the cause.

As legend has it, Wojtek's unusual career began in 1942 in the Alborz Mountains of Northern Iran. After a boy found the abandoned cub, he sold it to Polish soldiers for a few tins of food. These "Anders Army" soldiers were former prisoners of war, recently released by their Russian allies — and now on a mission to push back Nazi forces in the Middle East.

Wojtek quickly adapted to army life, feeding off the steady showers of attention. He developed a penchant for beer and cigarettes — though he preferred to eat his smokes. The soldiers weren't completely sure how to treat and handle a bear, but he provided them with much needed joy and escape during some harrowing times.

But as Spiegel's Danny Kringiel notes, things got really interesting for Wojtek and the troops in 1944:

Remembering Private Wojtek, the soldier-bear who fought in World War II

But before long, it looked like the soldiers would have to part ways with their new companion. On April 14, 1944, they found themselves in Egypt waiting to board a ship headed to Naples, where the unit was supposed to join in the Allied campaign in Italy. Port officials in Alexandria refused to allow the wild animal on board the ship, stating that only soldiers could make the journey.

So the soldiers improvised: They quickly obtained an authorization from the head military office in Cairo — and made their bear an official soldier. They gave him the name "Wojtek" — which means "he who enjoys war" or "smiling warrior" in Polish — in addition to a service number, a rank and a pay book. The trick worked, and Wotjek was allowed on board.

When Wojtek arrived in Naples, Archibald Brown, the British official, must have thought it was merely a joke. But the soldier-bear was actually a legal member of the Polish military, and one that provided his comrades with vigorous support.

By then, the once small cub had grown to become a big bear, standing 1.82 meters (6 feet) tall and weighing about 220 kilograms (485 pounds). Having resolved to put their furry comrade's strength to use, the soldiers taught how him to carry crates full of heavy mortar rounds.

Indeed, in an interview for the documentary on Wojtek, a British veteran recounted how he was taken aback when he suddenly saw a full-grown bear calmly schlepping mortar shells past him during the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, in the spring of 1944. Whether it is true or not, the story of his support in this decisive battle gave the bear legendary status among the soldiers. With the approval of the Polish high command, the company's emblem was changed to one showing a bear carrying a massive artillery shell.

After the war, Wojtek was demobilized just like the rest of the troops and sent to Scotland where he lived out the rest of his life. His home was the Edinburgh Zoo, where he was regularly visited by his old comrades. He is celebrated as a war hero to this very day by both Poles and Scots.

Be sure to read Kringiel's entire account of Wojtek the Bear: The Nazis' Furriest Enemy.

Top image via Spiegel; inset image via Wikipedia/Pernambuko.