By I.M. Knosp
The sky was alight, the forests had been rendered down to ash with bombardments, in this moment among the mountains of Monte Cassino, a hero was born. Far stronger than his brothers beside him, he lifted hundreds of pounds of artillery shells, bringing them to his brothers amidst the battle. Placing the ammo beside them, the Happy Warrior roared forth, the boxes light upon his muscles. This hero was the most innocent and also one of the most tragic figures to be found here where his legend was born. The Happy Warrior would find his tale fill hearts with joy in the darkest times and be the subject of many tear filled nights over his fate. His name was Wojtek, and he was a bear. This is the legend of the hero bear of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, both the stories of his immense kindness and of his stories sorrowful end.
His story began with the death of his mother. Orphaned and captured, the cub’s chances seemed slim. At best, he could hope to be bought and turned over to the abusive life of a dancing bear. However, fate had another plan for the young cub. In a moment his life’s path shifted, and his life would become the stuff of legend. No one is sure how he came to be inside a sack carried by a young boy in Persia, the youth’s eyes sunken in and emaciated as much as the cub. A pitiful sight along the road where the cub and his future brothers would first meet. The men noticed the boy, then they noticed the sack, and then they noticed the cub. A woman of Polish descent that had been with the men amongst a group of refugees, she urged them to buy the bear, Irena, a distant relative of a Polish general. The soldiers bartered the boy for the bear, giving him rations, a pocket knife, though in the end it was a can of beef that sealed the deal as the boy traded the cub for the men’s items and ran off never to cross paths with the bear again.
The Cub in the Desert
The life of the young cub was now in the hands of the Polish soldiers, his brown button eyes full of hope and his emaciated frame a reminder of his dire situation. Irena and the men fed him, initially this proved a trial, but they soon found that the use of condensed milk in an old vodka bottle did the trick. It did not take long for him to end up in the company of the man who would be his closest companion and surrogate parent, Peter Prendys.
Peter had ingratiated himself to most of the young Poles in the camp. He was in his 40s, twice the age of most of the soldiers, and his ability to read and write had allowed him to aid the men in writing and reading letters to their scattered loved ones. Peter like many of the men had seen plenty of horrors and had lost loved ones. Either to the arms of death or into the perils of the unknown, most of whom he would never see again. It was to Peter that they would entrust the cub, and the men decided he must have a name, a name that would become one of the most apt ones ever given. Wojtek (Pronounced Voy-tek) a name which carried with it the meaning of, “Happy Warrior”. A name that Wojtek would embody for the rest of his time with the men.
At first, Wojtek was much like a human child, at loud noises or the presence of another dangerous animal such as a bird of prey he would skitter along whining as only bears can and hide behind Peter, or in other situations crawl upon his lap and suckle a finger for comfort. At night he would sleep among the men, in Peter’s bed pressed against the man he would come to consider his mother, and who in Wojtek would find both a surrogate child and a friend. To feed the bear the men would spare rations and pass them along to Wojtek. Giving over honey, marmalade, fruit or whatever else they could spare.
As the cub grew, he began to mimic the men and would gleefully wrestle them, or sit around the fire quaffing beer, a drink he would grow to adore and longingly stare at until a pitying soldier would top him off, he also began to smoke alongside the men waiting for it to be lit before puffing briefly and gobbling it down. These precious war time comforts became the growing warriors favorite treats. It had not taken long for their superiors to discover the bear, and it hadn’t mattered anyway. The bear was seen as a source of light in a dark time, and the joy he gave the men was obvious. He became a mascot and a beacon of morale and comfort for his Polish brothers.
The cub grew quickly, becoming much harder to feed, though his playful and curious nature made him amiable even as he grew into what most would see as a fearsome predator. The bear learned to salute and march alongside the men and his claws were as deft as a man’s fingers. Before the fateful day that marked him as a legend, Wojtek would have many adventures on his journey through the Middle East. Including a fight with another mascot bear named Michael who unlike the gentle Wojtek was fearsome and violent, the bout between the two would end with Wojtek as the winner and the angry Michael fuming and envious of the Happy Warrior’s general freedom around the camp. Free to shower with the men and use far more water than they could truly spare.
This love of showers and the feel of water on his thick brown coat would lead Wojtek to one of his most notable moments in his adventures. Having since been barred from the showers for figuring out how to turn them on and get himself a free and far too long shower, the curious bear could not resist the door to the shower when he saw it open and found an Arab spy who upon seeing the large bear before him, answered every question the men put before him, for fear of being given back to the playful bear. Wojtek was rewarded with the longest shower the camp had ever seen, requiring a water truck to deliver a fresh supply. This freedom tended to shift back and forth as he grew. The destruction of food stocks by the curious and hungry bear would lead him to require an attendant and his freedom would be limited so that he would not be free to roam without a caretaker. Though Peter remained the one who was closest to him.
The bear still viewed Peter both as a close friend and a parental figure. With Peter often finding himself scolding Wojtek like a young child for his rash actions. Wojtek would hide his face behind his paws and whine, then occasionally peek through his claws at Peter to see if the show of regret and submission had worked, if not the whining bear technique would continue until it did. Along with the hijinks, marching, wrestling, and capturing of spies. Wojtek devoted himself to the men and often seemed to be able to sense their emotions. When the men needed him for emotional support, the bear would sit next to them as a comfort and they would stroke his soft coat, a kind comfort from a true friend.
Monte Cassino, The Legend is Born
Then the men were sent to Italy eventually to end up fatefully at Monte Cassino, but there was a problem. It was not an option to send Wojtek with them as a mascot. So the men enlisted the bear into the Polish military as a private, he had officially joined the 22nd Artillery Supply Company. On even footing with the men he saw as his family. They traveled across the Mediterranean sea landing in Italy and then after a few stops found themselves in the mountains for a decisive battle against the German forces.
Here is where the legend cemented itself, where Wojtek surpassed his status as a comfort and became a true hero, a symbol for generations to come. Driving the grueling and even deadly roads up the mountains was no easy feat, but it paled when compared to the charred and blood soaked earth that would become the battlefield. Some men even died just getting up the mountain falling to their deaths, when they finally found their way to their positions Wojtek at first would become terrified at the never ending sounds of the bombardment, being needy and terrified of going outside. However, he soon grew acclimated and eventually with no prompting Wojtek began to help carry the 100 pound boxes of shells, holding his arms out ready to aid them. He continued amidst the sounds of death and destruction and the scorched earth devoid of the lush greenery it had once had. The land smoked and the noise of bombardment was deafening. Wojtek soldiered on more and more with boxes of the heavy shells brought forth by him to continue the battle. Then the battle finally ended and Wojtek’s comrades wept for relief at its end.
Though over half of the men who had fought did not live to see its end. Here the symbol of Wojtek was born. A bear standing upright, holding an artillery shell, with a steering wheel behind. His brothers and many others would come to wear that symbol with pride. From then on, the legend of Wojtek was born. But it does not end there, like many of Europe’s heroes his story’s high point is not its end. Wojtek would travel with the men to Scotland. Promoted either officially due to his heroism or as a joke among his brothers to the rank of Corporal. Here in Scotland is where his story would end and where it would eventually awaken once more, the spirit of the Happy Warrior.
The Good Times in the Scottish Borderlands
Wojtek and his Polish brothers would find themselves at Winfield Camp at the borderlands of Scotland and England. Here Wojtek’s smaller stories grew in number. His misadventures in the river, his role as the wingman for the men to meet some lovely lasses, their key to interaction with the locals and the biggest supporter and the vehicle through which the Poles and the Scots would find themselves forming a community in the dark time.
As a bear, Wojtek loved water, showcased in many stories from before they had come to Scotland. Wojtek adored showers. He had once tried to leave Camp and was brought back using a water truck as a makeshift shower while still in the Middle East. While in Southern Europe Wojtek enjoyed swimming in the rivers of the area and gleefully played pranks on people such as several maidens swimming together in the river, who would flee startled and scared of the bear who had swum under them and risen right between them.
The Polish soldiers would use this as an excuse to meet the lovely lassies and introduce them to the bear. A technique they would use in spades once in Scotland. Here Wojtek made friends quickly, and had roughly free rein of the camp. Hunting birds, foraging, marking trees with his claws, some of whose marks are still on the trees to this day. Other times he would bound towards visitors from the local community, roll and appear before them with his belly in the air. Endearing himself to many locals, they would bring him sweets and other treats. Sharing a cigarette with the friendly bear.
Some even came to trust him enough that after Wojtek would enjoy their touch, he would give them his as well, taking his deft claws and feeling out their face. He was well groomed and proud of it. Some would even say he considered himself not only the same as the men around him, but a particularly handsome one. Especially given how much attention he could garner from the ladies. Like the men Wojtek loved going to dances, he loved the attention, the music of the band, the smell and taste of the treats that he would beg from unsuspecting wives as his gentle button eyes stared up begging for a piece of pie or other treat. He would attract the attention of women, that some of the men were all too happy to use as an excuse to meet a local lass. Then after playing with the children who would ride atop the great bear they had seen and heard so much about, he would pass the night away, swaying back and forth to the music on the ground before falling asleep on the floor of the dance. It was a time of socialization, satisfied sweet tooth’s and of music, the kind he had come to love while traveling in the camp with his brothers.
He was over 500 pounds at this point, the gentle giant had ingratiated himself to the villagers and many found themselves welcoming the Polish soldiers, though there was the odd gripe such as that of a local lad and a Pole who had both attempted to win the affection of a local girl. Though Wojtek was far more the focus of attention; it was hard to ignore him. Throughout the town, tales would be born, of Wojtek going to a girl’s house with the Polish men to apologize for scaring them, or the time he and the men had a night on the town and became drunk grumbling and growling all together as they groggily tried to make it back to camp. He drank, he danced, he played, he ate, and fought with his brothers. Often as a treat they would take Wojtek to the River Tweed near the Union bridge and with makeshift toys and with well prepared transport would go out to the river where the bear would play for hours. Swimming, splashing, and diving for so long his Polish brothers became worried. Often refusing to depart the river until they started to leave without him. Or else they’d have to try to lure or force him out, then Wotjek would run like crazy to shore and shake the water off his fur onto the startled Poles. For Wojtek this freedom may have seemed like paradise, his brothers with him, food, friends, music, rivers, and fields. But it was not to last.
The Impossible Decision
There were continued pushes to make the Poles go back to Poland, or what remained of it. The USSR had been cast as a great and valuable ally, and the accusations lobbed at the Allied power were often considered atrocity propaganda. But they were all too real to the Poles. Many still braved the journey back, hoping it would be better or hoping to find family, only to quickly disappear or be swiftly executed. Wojtek was difficult to care for, he had been a great boon both in their spirits and in their war. He had aided them both emotionally and physically. He was their brother, their friend and their comrade. A bear who considered himself human like them, a sort of werebear neither truly a bear or truly human. A fact that became blatant for the men when, after being gone for two weeks, Peter’s return was greeted by a bear hug from the overjoyed Wojtek that almost crushed his surrogate father. If Peter had been unable to knock Wojtek on his nose, the bear may have accidentally ended the life of his closest friend. These and other small incidents, as well as the rabidly dwindling numbers of men to care for him, was eventually brought to a head. Peter and the men were met with an awful decision for Wojtek, he could never return to Poland with them, the men weren’t safe, how could Wojtek be. So which would it be? A prison? Or a bullet…?
In a decision that had no happy outcome, they chose the former, and Edinburgh Zoo was chosen as his home. The men had dwindled, but still the arguments and anger at such a decision, the grief, the sorrow were written on them clear as day. Perhaps as a mercy Wojtek did not notice, or perhaps he did and wished not to worry his brothers anymore than they already were. His usual empathetic way of knowing when his brothers-in-arms could use a gentle comfort of his soft fur and presence was not there that day.
Peter took Wojtek up into transport one last time and traveling through to the cage that Wojtek would reside in, Peter led the bear who had been his friend, his son, his family, and his closest companion and in a heart wrenching moment when they were both in the cage and Wojtek looking around, Peter took out some of his old clothes and placed them for Wojtek on the ground, then he turned around in tears and left as the gate closed behind him. Wojtek came bounding towards the gate looking out from it, waiting for Peter to return, waiting for his closest friend to be with him again. Though he never would, the pain was too great.
Some of the men would come to visit, throwing cigarettes or other treats, climbing the bars to wrestle with him like they once did. Over time Wojtek grew acclimated to his new home, and would perk up in joy whenever he heard Polish spoken. Years later, as he grew old and frail, he was released from this life at age 21. He never forgot the time he had been free beside his brothers, frolicking, and fighting, and foraging with those he loved most. Those early years stayed with him for the rest of his life as he would wave and be greeted by children who would learn the story of the hero bear, and see for themselves the Happy Warrior. Though the cub that had nearly died had been given a family and a home, he had lost it due to bureaucracy and the tragedies of war. In his later years he lacked the thing he most desperately wanted, the human connection he had known since he was a little cub sucking on the thumb of Peter.
The Legend Lives On
For most stories that might’ve been the end, but it wasn’t. The legend of Wojtek did not end there. His saga had more parts yet to be written. The story was almost forgotten, like so many others in the war Wojtek had begun to fade. However, just as fate led Wojtek to his brothers, a little girl would be led to Wojtek, one whose grandfather had been one of the Scots to visit and smoke with Wojtek, Aileen Orr. As a young girl she had seen the bear in the zoo, she had spoken Polish to the Happy Warrior, his curious eyes had met hers. She had known the stories, known the tragedy. Decades later she would see the disregard of Wojtek, yet also the hope and meaning of such a tale. She put her nose to the grindstone and worked to cement the legacy of the hero bear she had met. In her own words, it was as if the spirit of Wojtek guided her. Even when she had a small mock up made to show the monument to Wojtek she hoped to build, young children would chat with the bear’s face, and Poles from younger generations would exclaim their love of Wojtek. Elderly men who would come to her aid would speak sorrowful Polish to pictures of the bear. After years of hard work, Wojtek found himself immortalized in a statue in Edinburgh with one of his Polish brothers right beside him, a hand on his beautiful coat. Another statue would then be built in Poland. Wojtek had come home, the spirit of Wojtek had guided himself to be beside his brothers once more. In the borderlands he had lived so well and in the homeland of his Polish family, Wojtek once more looks out with curious eyes at the world around him, and once more we can touch the gentle face of the hero bear.
Orr, Aileen. Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2010.
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