15. WWII’s Bear Soldier
It was the spring of 1942, and the Polish II Corps, accompanied by Polish war refugees, was passing through Iran en route from the Soviet Union to the Mediterranean Theater. On April 8th, some of the soldiers came across an Iranian boy who had found a Syrian brown bear cub – its mother had recently been shot by hunters. On the spur of the moment, the Poles bought the cub, which was raised for the next three months at a Polish refugee camp near Tehran, before it was donated to one of the Polish II Corps’ units. Amidst the horrors of WWII, it was the start of a cute – and cutely weird – relationship between a bear and the Polish military.
Initially, the young bear was fed condensed milk, before graduating to fruits and honey and marmalade. What he liked most, however, was beer, which became his reward for good behavior. He also enjoyed smoking – or eating – cigarettes, especially while drinking coffee. Named Wojtek, a diminutive of a Slavic term meaning “Happy Warrior”, the bear became a beloved mascot who often cuddled up to and slept with the soldiers at night. He accompanied his comrades through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.