During WW2, the Polish Army certainly welcomed within its ranks the most hairy-looking corporal that any had ever seen before: a brown bear going by the name of Wojtek (roughly meaning “the joyful warrior” in Polish).
The story of the bear can be traced to Hamadān, an Iranian city located 320 kilometers away from Teheran, where Polish troops stayed in April 1942. There, they came across a local boy carrying a cub whose mother had perished from hunters; Lt. Anatol Tarnowiecki, moved by the story, bought the animal who later became the mascot of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company (22 Kompania Zaopatrywania Artylerii).
Soon, the bear grew in size and reputation. He would drink milk from an empty vodka bottle, and fancied beer, cigarettes (which he mostly ate) but also some conventional Winnie-the-Pooh-food such as honey and jam. The bravest soldiers would also challenge him to some occasional wrestling. One of his closest pals, Dymitr Szawlugo, explained: “Many soldiers would not play with Wojtek as it got quite rough sometimes with people being scratched and uniforms getting torn. You had to know how to handle the bear and if you did no one got hurt.”
Wojtek followed his fellow soldiers all the way through Middle-East but trouble awaited when the troops boarded a ship in Egypt to Italy, where they were supposed to side forces with British. Indeed, the bear was not an official part of the Polish company, thus he could not journey alongside them; this was resolved simply by enlisting the bear as a regular member of the troops.
In 1944, the Polish unit fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino, and Wojtek helped by carrying ammunition; to pay tribute to his courage, the emblem of the company was redesigned to a bear with a shell in his paws.
Wojtek eventually ended up in Edinburgh Zoo in 1947, where he would spend his later life until his death in 1963. He would sometimes be offered cigarettes from former soldier pals. It is said that among all visitors he received during his time in Scotland, he would only give its full attention to those who addressed him in Polish.
So goes the story of a bear whose company helped bearing the horrors of war.