It was during the era of World War II when the nation’s leaders were too desperate for vengeance, conquest, and expansionism. In 1942, following the Soviet Union’s Poland invasion, the Polish armed forces were en route for Tehran. They came across a young Iranian boy who found a bear cub whimpering for its mother’s loss, which was shot by hunters. An eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz felt miserable for the cub’s condition and requested Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to take the cub along. The polish soldiers bought the cub for a few coins, and Irena took care of the cub for three months. Later, the bear grew up among polish soldiers, and they named him Wojtek, which meant a happy warrior. He was given the rank of private in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.
The soldiers fed him milk through a vodka bottle and offered him fruits, syrup, and honey. They raised him as their child.
Being surrounded by humans, Wojtek grew up as one and developed habits of other soldiers. He smoked cigarettes, drank beer, wrestled with other soldiers in friendly matches, and saluted. Spending the evenings around campfires, he slept with the soldiers in their tent during the night. He learned to take showers and march with the soldiers. One day, Wojtek was taking a shower when an enemy spy sneaked in the camp. The spy on seeing a bear standing 6 feet tall in front of him, screamed in terror, which led to his arrest.
Wojtek accompanied the troops while they moved across Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In 1942, the Polish armed forces merged with the British Army to combat in the Italian Campaign. While moving to Italy, the Polish soldiers wanted to take Wojtek with them. However, the British Army officials prohibited the boarding of anyone other than the soldiers. The Poles, still not wanting to leave Wojtek behind, formally enlisted the bear to their ranks. Wojtek was given the rank of private, his soldier book, and an index number. Wojtek was officially a soldier now. The British officer took the departure list to ensure everybody on the list was aboard. He announced the name “Wojtek Mis,” and there came a 6 feet tall bear waiting to board the ship. The British officer exclaimed, “But this is not a man!” The Polish side’s reply was, “Private Wojtek Mis (Wojtek the bear) inspires fighting spirit in Polish soldiers.”
During the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, one of the greatest battles of World War II, Wojtek proved to be much more than just a good company. Wojtek was initially frightened by the continuous loud sounds of gunshots and bombardment. However, watching his friends firing on enemies and carrying loads, Wojtek accompanied them. He took crates of ammo from supply trucks to his friends at the artillery positions who were continuously firing on the opponents. Amid the firing and bombardment, Wojtek lifted loads single-handedly, which were too heavy to be carried by even four soldiers together.
After the battle of Monte Casino, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company changed its official emblem to an image of Wojtek carrying ammunition in his hands. Wojtek was promoted to the rank of Corporal, and the Polish-Scottish Association made him an honorary member. Wojtek also fought in the liberation battle of Ancona and Bologna after the Battle of Monte Cassino.
After World War II, the troops moved to Berwickshire, Scotland. Wojtek stayed with them for a few more years. The 22nd Artillery Supply Company terminated its operations on November 15, 1947, following which the soldiers dispersed and settled into their new lives. A home for Wojtek was arranged in Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life. Being already in the news all this while, many locals often visited him. His old Polish Army buddies come to see him in the zoo. He would stand up on his hinds and waves his paws, recognizing the polish language.
In December 1963, Wojtek died in Edinburg Zoo at the age of 21. Various media channels broadcasted this news. Edinburg has built a memorial for the brave bear. There is also a statue and collection of Wojtek’s photographs in London’s Sikorski Institute. From becoming an orphan after his mother was shot dead by hunters to engrave his name in history pages, Wojtek has made it large. What should we call it? Maybe DESTINY!
“It was very pleasant for me to think about him. I felt like he was my older brother,” Mr. Narebski (a polish soldier) told BBC.