The tale of Wojtek the bear, the beer-drinking behemoth who entered the Polish army during World War II as a private and left a corporal.
Wojtek the bear was officially drafted into the Polish army in mid-1942 as a private. He was given a paybook (though never received any checks), a serial number, and a tent, just like all his comrades in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. Over the next three years, he lived and served with his company, and even participated in a costly battle. By the time the war was over, he’d been promoted to corporal.
But back in 1942, Wojtek the bear was but a cub, under the care of an Iranian boy who’d found the animal after hunters killed his mother. When Polish soldiers passed through, a young civilian refugee girl traveling with them took a liking to the cub. Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki bought the cub for the girl, who looked after him for the next three months before he was donated to the army.
Once in the army, the soldiers christened him Wojtek (“joyful warrior”) and began taking care of him, feeding him fruit, honey, and condensed milk (from an old vodka bottle). But what Wojtek really loved was beer. It was, by all accounts, his favorite drink, and was often given to him as a reward.
But despite his love of beer (and cigarettes — both smoking and eating them), Wojtek was reportedly a good soldier — he would even salute his comrades. His crowning moment as a soldier came during the Battle of Monte Cassino, when he helped carry ammunition, an act that inspired the company’s future emblem.
After the war, Wojtek traveled with his company to Scotland, and remained there under the care of the Edinburgh Zoo for the rest of his life. That life ended in 1963 at the age of 21, but since then, the 500-pound, six-foot behemoth has been memorialized in plaques and statues by museums and local governments across Europe and North America.
For more on Wojtek the bear, check out the following mini-documentary:
Next, read the tale of Sergeant Stubby, World War I’s decorated dog soldier. Then, discover the violent history of humans using animals as weapons across the centuries.