In April 1942, the Polish 22nd Transport Company, newly released from Russian hands and trekking through Iran to regroup with British forces, came across an Iranian shepherd with a bear cub. Falling in love with the little cub, the soldiers traded him for some canned meat. They called him Wojteg, or “smiling warrior,” and he served as their moral support while climbing through the mountains. Despite the poor diet of honey, beer, cigarettes, and canned meat, the bear grew to six feet tall and 485 pounds of affection.
After traveling with them through Egypt, Palestine, and Iran for over a year, the bear met trouble with the port authorities in Italy. From Todayifoundout:
In Naples, it was British Courier Archibald Brown’s job to help process Polish soldiers that had just arrived from Egypt to advance with British soldiers against German and Italian forces. But when he called Wojtek’s name, no one answered.
“We looked at the roster, and there was only one person, Corporal Wojtek, who had not appeared,” Brown said in an interview years later. So he asked the other soldiers why Wojtek didn’t come forward. An amused soldier replied: “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.” To his great surprise, Brown was led to a cage holding a full-grown bear.
Wojtek soon proved he was more than just a mascot when, during the series of assaults known as the Battle of Monte Cassino, he put his strength to good use after being trained to carry heavy crates filled with mortar shells from the supply trucks, delivering them to the men operating the large guns on the front line.
The bear continued with the 22nd division to Scotland for two more years until the troops, now counting 3,000 men, were demobilized in 1947, and after many sorrowful good-byes to their furry companion, Wojtek went to the Edinburgh Zoo. Many of the service men continued to visit the bear, slipping him bottles of beer when the keepers weren’t looking. Wojtek died at age 22 in 1963.