Photo By WeronikaLadogorska From Shutterstock

The right to arm bears

After their liberation from a Siberian labor camp during the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1942, little did the 22nd Polish Supply Brigade know as they began a long trek south toward Persia, they would be adding a larger than life character to their ranks, one larger than any man in their troop.

At a railroad station in Hamadan, Iran, on 8 April 1942, the Polish soldiers encountered a young Iranian boy who had found a bear cub whose mother had been shot by hunters. The men would buy the cub, feeding it with condensed milk from a vodka bottle.

Naming him Wojtek (from Wojciech meaning happy warrior), he was eventually adopted by the brigade and enlisted officially as a soldier with the rank of private. He would eventually be promoted to the rank of corporal.

As an enlisted soldier, he would have his own paybook, rank, and serial number, live with the other men in tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. He would enjoy drinking beer with his comrades, wrestling fellow soldiers and smoking, then for some reason known only to Wojtek, then eating lit cigarettes.

Just as any enlisted soldier, Wojtek would eventually see combat. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, he helped his unit to convey ammunition by carrying 100-pound crates of 25-pound artillery shells, making him a hero to his men and a celebrity with visiting Allied generals and statesmen.

In recognition of Wojtek’s popularity, a depiction of a bear carrying an artillery shell was adopted as the official emblem of the 22nd Company. After the war was over, this Polish war hero would live out the rest of his days in Edinburgh Zoo. Occasionally receiving visits from former Polish soldiers, some of whom tossed cigarettes for him to eat, as he did during his time in the army.

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