Private Wojtek is hailed as a war hero in Poland, but the renowned soldier was neither Polish nor human.
Wojtek was a brown bear who was dealt a poor hand as a cub. After hunters killed his mother, Wojtek wandered the world alone until he was found and adopted by a young boy.
In 1942 a group of war-weary Polish troops bumped into the young boy and his bear in Northern Iran. The soldiers took pity on Wojtek because he looked hungry and haggard.
They offered the boy chocolate, beef, coins, and a Swiss army knife for the bear. The boy agreed, and the bear was enlisted into the ranks of the Polish army. The soldiers named the four-legged recruit Wojtek, which roughly translates as “happy warrior.”
A young Sergeant named Peter took care of Wojtek and taught the bear how to salute. He and the other soldiers would spend hours wrestling with Wojtek. Peter was called “Mother Bear” because he would cuddle Wojtek to sleep in the tent they shared.
The soldiers taught Wojtek some bad habits such as drinking beer and smoking cigarettes and some good habits such as taking showers.
In 1943 Wojtek was in Gaza with his unit. The heat was unbearable for the big bear. One morning he snuck into the shower tent to cool off and stumbled across a spy.
Coming face to face with a full-grown bear scared the living daylights out of the spy. His screams of terror alerted the troops who promptly arrested him. Wojtek was a hero.
Wojtek traveled to Italy with his Polish brothers-in-arms. A British officer attempted to stop him boarding the boat. “This is not a man!” he cried. Wojtek’s Polish comrades protested, saying, “He inspires our fighting spirit.”
Wojtek was thrust into the hell and horror of the Second World War. The battlefield was no place for a gentle bear. The constant boom of the guns and the cries of maimed men turned him into a nervous wreck. During one battle, he clung to his friends and then climbed up a tree in terror.
From up high, he saw his friends lugging crates of artillery shells. Wanting to play his part, he left the tree. He approached his companions, reared up on his hind legs, and reached out with his front paws. He wanted to help. Throughout the battle, Wojtek carried artillery cases. From that day on, Wojtek’s unit’s badge would show a bear carrying an artillery shell.
After the war, Peter found a new home for his old friend in Scotland. For 16 years, Wojtek lived happily in Edinburgh Zoo. His old comrades frequently visited him until his death in 1962.