After being released from a Siberian labor camp during the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1942, the 22nd Polish Supply Brigade began a long trek south toward Persia. Along the way, they bought an orphaned bear.
In the spring of 1942 following the release of Polish prisoners and deportees in the labour camps in Siberia, the main route out of the Soviet Union was across the Caspian Sea to Persia or Iran as it is known today. A new Polish Army was being formed in the Middle East under the command of the British and on their way to the organization area, a group of Polish soldiers came across a little bear in the mountainous region of Persia. The cub was an orphan following the death of his mother at the hands of hunters and he was traded to the soldiers by a shepherd boy who kept the bear in a sack.
The animal was very small and the problem of feeding him was soon overcome by the improvised techniques employed by his new family including feeding him from on a bottle filled with condensed milk. Eventually, they all arrived in Palestine and the bear was taken to the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp where the men would become his companions for the next few years. He was given the name Wojtek, pronounced Voytek.
From the beginning he became a popular member of the Company spending most of his time with the soldiers of the 4th Platoon. Two of his closest friends were two young soldiers, Dymitr Szawlugo and Henryk Zacharewicz who would both be featured in many of the photos and film footage taken of Wojtek. He would often be found in the kitchen area and he ate everything he was fed and even developed a taste for beer and wine together with cigarettes which he would only accept when lit. He had a habit of drinking from a beer or wine bottle and when empty, he would peer into the bottle waiting patiently for more. He would usually take one puff of a lit cigarette and then swallow it.
Wojtek grew to become a very strong bear and was happy bathing and wrestling with his comrades. Only a few soldiers dared to take him on in a wrestling match as some times the men would get roughed up a bit by getting scratched or have their uniforms torn. The rest of the men were happy to watch. In Palestine, Wojtek became a hero one night by capturing a thief who had broken into an ammunition compound where the bear was sleeping. The Arab was shocked to find himself confronted by the animal and the commotion that ensued resulted in his arrest. Wojtek was quite satisfied with the reward of a bottle of beer.
Read the remainder at The Soldier Bear