Wojtek, Soldier Bear

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In November 1947, after five years of service, the Polish army discharged a soldier by the name of Wojtek at the rank of corporal. Wojtek’s record had its moments of distinction, including heroism under fire in the brutal battle against the Nazis at Monte Cassino, Italy. But overall, it was blemished with insubordination, including drunkenness, theft of women’s clothing, and attempted murder. For another soldier, these crimes would have meant a court-martial, but the army let them slide, because Corporal Wojtek was a 500-pound brown bear.

From Hannibal’s elephant-borne crossing of the Alps to SEAL Team Six’s use of titanium-fanged dogs in Abbottabad, the soldier-beast relationship has been a profitable one. The animals frequently show a constancy and loyalty that exceeds even the bonds between the soldiers themselves. Few relationships, though, were more affectionate or extraordinary than that of Wojtek the bear and his Polish comrades.

The military service of Wojtek (pronounced VOY-tek) began in April 1942, when he poked his wet brown snout out of a gunny sack carried by a scrawny boy in the Zagros mountains of western Iran. The boy came to a group of Polish soldiers to beg for food. When the soldiers saw the cub, the boy sensed that a deal could be struck and sold Wojtek for chocolate, beef and a Swiss Army knife. Wojtek thus avoided the grim fate of being sold to an Iranian circus, and the Polish soldiers — who were fighting in exile, their country laid waste by the Nazis — got a much-needed morale boost.

Peter Prendys, 46, became Wojtek’s principal attendant and surrogate parent. He filled a vodka bottle with condensed milk and shoved a rag in the top for suckling. When Wojtek misbehaved, Prendys scolded him, and the bear stuck its small paws over its eyes and whimpered until forgiven. Wojtek didn’t like to sleep alone, and often sneaked into Prendys’ tent to cuddle during the night. The commanding officer discovered this arrangement and determined that this man-bear menage was best left undisturbed, because of the affection that the men were developing for their playful companion.

The bear followed the Poles when they moved around the Middle East, in areas that are now part of Israel, Iraq and Egypt. As he grew up, he taught himself to climb palm trees. Climbing down took more learning, and at first, whenever he went up, he required a ladder rescue. He played more roughly as he grew to maturity, and soon could take all comers in wrestling matches (when Wojtek won, he subjected his opponents’ faces to a thorough licking). For leisure, he lumbered near the water tanks and begged passersby to turn the faucets on so he could shower and cool off.

But most of all he enjoyed being a soldier. He marched, and he tagged along for all assignments. Prendys, the sergeant who had nursed him from a vodka bottle, drove a truck with Wojtek in the cab; the bear would stick his face out the window and lap at the breeze like a golden retriever. According to Aileen Orr, Wojtek’s biographer, the bear considered himself a soldier just like any other, with the same working and sleeping schedule, the same duties and the same recreation. At one point, he stole a whole clothesline of lingerie as a prank.

In all these misadventures, the bear screamed in anger just once — and even then, only at another military bear. The Shah of Iran had donated that bear, Michael, to a Polish infantry regiment. At first sight, the two creatures rushed each other with claws bared and murder in mind. Only after Wojtek’s friends discouraged him from finishing the other bear off did he relent. Michael retired in disgrace to a cage at the Tel Aviv Zoo.

In May 1944, just weeks before the D-Day invasion, Allied forces launched a renewed assault on German positions in Italy, and Wojtek’s artillery unit was charged with laying down mortar fire on the enemy. To do so, the Poles had to carry an endless succession of heavy crates of mortar rounds from their trucks to their firing positions, so that the hell could rain on the Axis forces continuously.

When Wojtek witnessed his friends unloading the heavy crates, he joined in, his immense strength allowing him to carry hundred-pound loads of ammunition with incredible speed. He stuck out his paws to receive the cargo, then scampered over to the firing site with it, never dropping a single load. The constant explosions didn’t faze him, and although he took breaks on his own schedule, his efforts were noteworthy enough for the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps to feature his likeness on its insignia, walking upright and carrying an artillery shell.

In 1945, Wojtek’s unit transferred to Great Britain. With the Nazis vanquished, Poland remained under Stalin’s control, and free Polish forces couldn’t comfortably return. For two years, they lived in Berwick, Scotland, as a military unit, unsure when they’d return home. Wojtek provided some of the love and affection their distant families could not, and he was seen comforting glum soldiers when they received bad news in the mail. The hugs continued, although at times they nearly killed the recipients.

Wojtek remained mischievous. He enjoyed swimming in a nearby river, and when he spied women bathing, he liked to swim stealthily and surprise them underwater. He developed a taste for beer and was rationed two bottles daily, along with his 80 pounds of vegetables and hamburgers. He learned to smoke, although generally he just ate the lit cigarette whole. He took up hunting, until a horse bludgeoned him with its front hooves and put him off the hobby for good. He would drunkenly stumble around the camp, and at least once he entered the wrong building, freaking out a company of Indian sepoys.

The Polish II Corps disbanded in November 1947, and Wojtek was pensioned off to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he continued to smoke avidly and welcomed Polish-speaking visitors until his death in 1963. Statues stand in his memory, as one of Poland’s most devoted and beloved fighters, and certainly its furriest.


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