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Wojtek, the Polish
Soldier-Bear at
Monte Cassino!

by Robert Strybel

All Poles and many Pol-Ams know about General Anders’ Second Corps that left the “Inhuman Land” (USSR), traveled through Persia (Iran), Iraq, Palestine and Egypt, captured the Nazi fortress at Monte Cassino, helped liberate Bologna and Ancona in Italy and finally ended up in the British Isles. But not too many in Poland and fewer yet in Polonia have ever heard about Wojtek the Bear who accompanied them along the entire route. He was even said to have supplied Polish troops with ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino.

It all began in the hills around the town of Hamadan, Persia, where Polish soldiers encountered a scrawny, famished little Persian boy holding a sack with something moving inside. He eagerly sold the little bear cub for two tins of Spam-like meat, and the Second Corps’ 22nd Artillery Supply Company had itself a mascot which it called Wojtek (VOY-tek).

The boy said the cub’s mother had been shot, when he was still blind, so Wojtek probably had not ever seen another bear and was to go through life thinking he was human. The soldiers stuck a rag nipple onto a vodka bottle and fed Wojtek diluted canned condensed milk. But bears grow up fast. Within a year he was the size of a St. Bernard dog, and eventually he would be six feet tall and weigh in at 550 pounds.

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Wojtek is seen here engaging in a favorite pastime, good-natured wrestling with a Polish soldier pal, whose face he would lick after winning.

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Wojtek hated to sleep alone in his crate and often bunked down in one of the soldiers’ tents. He loved sweets and beer and even an occasional cigarette, although by today’s standards the anti-cruelty types would surely rant and rave. And he was crazy about the shower room, often pulling the cord and emptying the company’s entire water supply on himself. He also enjoyed good-natured wrestling but never hurt anyone. After easily flooring a rival, he would lick his face.

One night soldiers heard a ghastly outcry and sprang from their bunks to find a terrified howling Wojtek who had come across an unexpected Arab trying to get close to the company’s weapons. In Italy, when two soldiers had a hard time lifting an ammunition crate at Monte Cassino, Wojtek easily picked it up and carried it to where it was needed. The cartoon-style logo of a bear carrying an artillery shell henceforth became the 22nd Company’s trademark.

Wojtek traveled with his comrades aboard the Polish troop ship Batory and ended up in Scotland. After the war, when the unit was dissolved, the question arose: what about Wojtek? He lovable bruin was too much to handle for any single family. It was finally decided to entrust him for safekeeping to the Glasgow Zoo until he could be moved to free Poland. Some of the veterans would visit Wojtek at the zoo, and he always livened up at the sound of familiar Polish speech. They threw him treats and occasionally a lit cigarette which he puffed with enjoyment. But he died there in 1963 of natural causes more than a quarter-century before Poland would throw off the Soviet yoke.

The logo of Wojtek the Soldier-Bear graced the sides of 22nd Artillery Supply Company vehicles.

There have been occasional articles about Wojtek in different countries, but his most compete story was “Wojtek spod Monte Cassino” written by Polish war veteran Wiesław Lasocki and published in London by the émigré Polish Veterans Association. The book was later translated into English as “Soldier Bear.”

When Britain’s Prince Charles was visiting the Imperial War Museum with his sons, a guide mentioned the Wojtek story, but he only replied: “There’s no need to tell me about it. I’ve already read the book to my boys.”


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