Band of Brothers, Plus a Bear

Roma Panganiban

The Soldier Bear

Going off to war often means leaving your family, friends, and beloved pets behind. During World War II, Polish soldiers compensated for their missing loved ones by adopting a Syrian brown bear, christening him Wojtek (pronounced "VOY-tek"), or "smiling warrior," and accepting him into the company. Soldiers bottle-fed the cub, who eventually grew to eat anything he was given—including cigarettes, which he smoked for a single puff before swallowing them whole.

The soldier bear accompanied 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp throughout their travels, making quite a name for himself as a mascot. He confronted a would-be thief in Palestine, and was rewarded with a bottle of beer. In order to allow him to enter the Italian war zone in 1943, the Polish Army officially enlisted Private Wojtek, serial number and all. He was unafraid of gunfire and carried boxes of ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino, after which the 22nd Transport Company modified their official badge to an image of Wojtek carrying a shell.

Wojtek survived the war, and made his home in the Edinburgh Zoo, where Polish ex-servicemen often visited and spoke to him in Polish until his much-mourned death in 1963.