Every once in a while you run across an inspiring story where the star of the story is not who or what you would expect them to be. This is one such story.
Starting in 1943, the 22nd Polish Army Corps brought in a 500 pound bear to be their mascot. Up until 1944 the majority of the bear’s duties were in a non combatant role. His job was to be a moral booster for the troops and he did this job with distinction.
But at the Battle of Monte Cassino, the bear decided to expand on his duties and did so of his own free will. During a heavy attack, the bear left his station and started to assist the soldiers in the unloading and the transport of artillery shells. During these activities, Private Wojtek was under heavy and direct fire from the Nazi forces yet he continued to perform with bravery. While he is most famous for this battle and for his actions during the battle, most say that his biggest contribution during the battle was his actions that inspired the men to continue to do their duty.
Private Wojtek was sold to the Army at less than one year of age in 1942 by a young boy in exchange for a few tins of canned meat. Due to his age, he had trouble swallowing food so he was fed via a emptied vodka bottle filled with milk. He became quite the attraction to both the enlisted and for the civilian groups. Due to his popularity, he was named the mascot for the corp and was listed as an active soldier on the roster. Private Wojtek was trained to salute when greeted through the use of treats such as marmalade, honey, and syrup. Like many soldiers, Private Wojtek loved his beer and his cigarettes. Private Wojtek’s heroics during the battle, in which he did not drop a single case of ammo even under withering fire, inspired the corp to design their new emblem with a bear holding an artillery shell which it still the emblem to this day.
At the end of WW2 in 1945, Private Wojtek was transported to the Berwickshire in Scotland along with portions of the 2nd Corp. He remained there, as both the official mascot of the Corp and a major tourist attraction until his death in December 1963. At the time of his death he was 22 years old and weighed nearly 500 pounds.
The media attention contributed to Wojtek’s popularity. He was a frequent guest of BBC’s Blue Peter program. Among memorial plaques commemorating the bear-soldier are a stone tablet in the Edinburgh Zoo, plaques in the Imperial War Museum and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa , as well as a monument in Sikorski’s Museum in London. There are proposals to erect a memorial in Edinburgh. It is said that Prince Charles , when visiting the Imperial War Museum with his sons, remarked to the guide that there was no need to tell the story of Wojtek since all three of them knew it well.
Private Wojtek, which translated means “Happy Warrior” will receive the honor of having his likeness memorialized in Edinburgh in the form of a $318,000 monument.
Sometimes great stories and accounts of bravery come from the thing we less expect them to come from. This is one such story.