* rrrrrriiiiiiiiinnnnnng * Okay, class. Eyes up front. Today's lesson: military history.
After my post about Poland, I got into a quick exchange with a guy about the Polish Army having a bear in it. "Well, a bear as a mascot is pretty cool. Although I would have thought the Poles would choose an eagle."
No, the bear wasn't a mascot, he was an actual enlisted officer.
So let me take a few minutes to teach you the history of Wojtek (pronounced "VOY-tek"), the only bear to serve in the armed forces. I warn you, you are about to experience Pure Awesome. The only way Wojtek could be more awesome is if he was a ninja that breathed fire.
The story starts with World War II and my ancestral home of Poland. Historically, the Poles don't get a whole lot of respect -- they were the only army that wasn't invited to the end of the war celebration in London (America was, the French were, even the New Zelanders were, but not the Poles). Throughout history, pretty much every country in Europe jammed their square butt plug into Poland at one time or another, so WWII wasn't going to be pretty. The Germans and the Russians decided to invade Poland and divvy it up amongst themselves. England, led by Neville Chamberlain, signed a pact guaranteeing Polish independence but sent no weaponry, no armor, no troops, no nothing other than saying of an invasion of Poland, "We frown on this sort of thing." Yeah, England declared war in response to Poland being invaded, but they sure didn't do anything to help. In September 1939, the Germans came in one way, the Russians the other, and Poland was literally wiped off the map. It didn't exist anymore. Some were able to escape to keep Poland alive, like General Wladyslaw Sikorski who formed the Polish government in exile. Those who couldn't get out? Neither side wanted them. They were executed, forced into servitude, or simply sent to prison camps. For the Russians, this meant the gulags in Siberia.
Then, Genrmany overplayed its hand. In 1941, with the support of Italy and Romania, Hitler began Operation Barbarossa, his attempt to conquer Russia. Stalin realized what was happening and thought, We need troops! All soldiers in the gulags were freed, and the Polish army exiles were offered a chance to fight for the Russians. This, as you might expect, was not met with enthusiasm. The newly formed 22nd Artillery Supply Company began a long trek from Siberia to Egypt, where they would join with the British 8th Army.
In 1942, the 22nd Atillery made it to Persia, what is now known as Iran. It was there that they met Our Hero. A local boy had found a Syrian brown bear cub, less than a year old, whose mother had been killed by hunters. He kept the cub in a sack and was unsure what to do with him. When the 22nd Artillery came to town, they acquired supplies from the locals, including the kid's family. They then asked about the contents of the sack (there is no historical record that they did the, "What's in the bag, dad?" joke). The bear was extemely malnourished and had trouble swallowing. The Poles, orphans themselves, bought the bear and decided to make him their mascot. They fed him condensed milk from an emptied vodka bottle, and eventually, the bear recovered and started growing. The soldiers gave him the name "Wojtek," which in Polish means, "Smiling warrior."
Now, there's one little detail about Wojtek that keeps this an affirming story instead of turning it into a tragedy out of a horror movie -- Wojtek had no idea he was a bear. Literally. Wojtek bonded with the humans so thoroughly that, besides his usual diet of fruit, marmalde, honey, and syrup, he also developed a taste for beer. This wasn't him mimicking the humans, observers noted Wojtek would drink the bottle dry, then peer into it like, "That's it?" It was his favorite drink. He also smoked. No kidding. He wouldn't take a cigarette unless it was already lit, but he would take one puff and then swallow the whole thing. Wojtek eventually figured out how to stand on his hind legs and march with the other soldiers and even to salute when greeted. He figured out on his own how to operate the showers in the camps and would happily go in to splash around. He ate with the soldiers and usually slept with them (he would sometimes sleep in a crate outside the barracks instead). While he was still small enough to fit, he rode shotgun in the transport trucks. He even wrestled with them, although he usually won and only the hardiest soldiers dared to take him on. He was literally one of the guys, just fuzzier.
It didn't take long for Wojtek to prove himself as more than a novelty. He loved his fellow soldiers and looked out for them. During one stop, Wojtek was sleeping in an ammo supply bunker. An Arab thief broke in, hoping to help himself to some free samples. He rounds a corner and finds himself face to face with a 6 foot tall, 500 pound killing machine who isn't happy about the intruder. The thief freaked and was quickly captured (Wojtek was rewarded for this with a bottle of beer. He had no objections). Another time, Wojtek went into the showers to relax and came across a spy who had been planted there by the Axis to spy on the camp. Wojtek saw him, literally slapped him upside the head, and the spy surrendered on the spot, giving up intelligence on the locations of Axis outposts in the area. Wojtek became a major attraction for people in the area who
The 22nd Artillery eventually made it to Egypt, where the British 8th gave them the wonderful news that they would be involved in the fourth assault on Monte Cassino . Monte Cassino was the heart of the Winter Line, the most entrenched and tightly held Axis territory. The Allies had underestimated the weather and the preparedness of the soldiers there, and each attempt failed miserably. It was hoped that the improved weather would change things, and they needed fresh troops. The 22nd Artillery prepared to load the transport ship, Wojtek happily with them, when they were stopped. The official explanation was that the transport was for soldiers only, they couldn't bring a bear on there. I suspect the real reason was, "He's a bear! You can't bring a wild bear onto a transport full of people!" The Poles revolted, demanding Wojtek travel with them. After all, they were all that was left of Poland, and Wojtek was pretty much all they had. The brass was hearing none of it.
Finally, in a fit of sarcasm, one of the Polish soldiers said, "Maybe we should make him an officer. Then they'd have no choice but to let him on."
And the others said, "That's a really really good idea."
And so, Wojtek was drafted into the Polish Army. He was given the rank of private and a serial number. This didn't fool anyone, but he had papers, they were in order, and they let him on.
And here's where we see how awesome Wojtek really was. The 22nd Transport company (they had changed the name from Artillery at that point) wasn't support, they were part of the front line trying to take Monte Cassino from the East. And it was pure hell. The heavily fortified Axis was shelling and killing. Being particularly targeted were the soldiers handling the ammo crates. The crates weighed 100 pounds each and took at least one, sometimes two soldiers to carry them from the supply trucks to the cannons. During the battle, Wojtek's handler had to leave him to man a cannon whose operator had been killed. Wojtek sat there for a little bit, then remembered the other soldiers who had been carrying ammo crates to the cannons. Wojtek then got up, and started carrying crates to the cannons. Shells flying, bullets whizzing by, people dying, and Wojtek, no fucks given, carried ammo crates to his friends and didn't drop a single one. This inspired the troops, who pressed on harder, and on May 18, 1944, the Polish 12th Podolian Polish cavalry Regiment raised the Polish flag over Monte Cassino, opening the way for the Western troops to invade Italy.
Wojtek was the hero of the day. So much so that the 22nd Artillery changed its patches. They now depicted a bear carrying a mortar shell. Wojtek was promoted to corporal, and everyone just looked in amazement.
With the Italian offensive underway and the squeeze on Nazi Germany, it didn't take much longer for the war to end. There was still the question of what to do with all the Poles. Some went to rebuild their country, others simply found new homes. The Scotts had developed a strong bond with the Poles -- in 1940, Churchill had ordered all Polish troops on the Western front to Scotland to fortify it from invasion. The Scotts greeted the Poles warmly, and it wasn't long before the culture was accepted. The Scotts offered the Poles life after the war, and that included Wojtek. Wojtek was placed in the Edinburgh Zoo. Hearing anyone speaking Polish got his attention, and people would throw cigarettes and beer into the enclosure for him. Some Polish officers would even jump the fence to wrestle with him. Wojtek also became a TV star, frequently appearing on the BBC show Blue Peter.
Wojtek died in 1963 at the age of 21. A memorial plaque is at the Edinburgh Zoo for him. There are also plaques for him at the Imperial War Museum and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. There are sculptures of him in the Sikorski Museum in London and in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby. In 2014, Krakow erected a statue of him in Park Jordana. In 2013, Edinburgh erected a bronze statue of Wojtek walking with a Polish Army Soldier in peace and unity in the Princes Street Gardens. A 4 meter (13 feet) relief there details his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army.
So let this be a lesson to you -- anyone that says you can't do something? You just aren't made from the right stuff?
Remember the bear that became an Army officer and a war hero.
And tell them to shove it.
* rrrrrriiiiiiiiinnnnnng * Okay, class. Eyes up front. Today's lesson: military history.