The Army of Poland employed a brown bear as part of an artillery team in the Second World War. His name was Wojtek (pronounced "voytek") and he worked in the 22nd Artillery Company.

    In spring of 1942, after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, thousands of Polish citizens and elements of the Polish military were deported from Soviet territory. They journeyed through Iran to British Palestine.

    Along the way, they encountered an Iranian boy with an orphaned bear cub. According to the boy, the cub's mother had been killed by hunters. The teenage neice of a Polish general convinced an officer to buy the bear cub, which they nursed back to health and eventually made their mascot.

    The bear was trained to perform a military salute, cuddle with soldiers on cold nights, and even march with them by standing on his back legs. He copied the soldiers in every way, even attempting to smoke cigarettes (he usually just ate them).

    When the Polish army finally reunited with allied forces, they were assigned to join the invasion of Italy alongside the British 8th Army. However, the transport ships banned all pets and mascot animals.

    The Poles refused to leave Wojtek, and got around the rule by drafting the bear into the army as a legally recognized soldier. He had his own personal records files, his own paycheck, his own dogtag ID number, and even held the rank of Private.

    It wasn't symbolic, either. Private Wojtek actually participated in combat at the Battle of Monte Casino by carrying 100-pound crates full of artillery shells. It was a job that normal required four men, but Wojtek did it alone and perfectly, never dropping a single shell. His actions kept the artillery barrage well supplied until Allied forces finally seized the fortified mountaintop from Nazi paratroopers.

    In recognition of his excellent performance, Private Wojtek was promoted to Corporal Wojtek and the 22nd Artillery Company made their flag the image of a bear lifting an artillery shell. They still use that flag today.

    After the war, Corporal Wojtek retired to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland, where he was frequently visited by fellow Polish veterans, who game him cigarettes just like old times. He enjoyed a long and happy life, weighing over 1,000 pounds as any successful brown bear should. There are several memorials in his honor, both in Poland and Scotland.


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