Standing in the shadow of Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle is a statue of a man and a bear. The placard next to them reveals they are Polish soldiers and World War II heroes — yes, even the bear. Named “Wojtek,” the Syrian brown bear spent years in the Polish army before his journey ended in Edinburgh, where his statue’s nose now gleams gold from friendly pats. But that journey began thousands of miles away in Iran, in 1942.
Wojtek arrived at the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps by happenstance, when a young Iranian shepard traded the orphaned bear for a Swiss army knife, some chocolate, and canned beef. The Polish soldiers received a tiny cub in a burlap sack, who was placed under the care of a soldier named Peter Prendys. To everyone’s delight, the animal quickly assimilated, and in 1944 he became Private Wojtek, meaning “joyful warrior” in Polish. He was fed double rations, often washing it down with a beer.
Wojtek’s antics provided much-needed entertainment, but he was more than just a pet. The bear proved his worth on the battlefield when his company was reassigned to Italy. Eyewitness reports from May 1944, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, purport that Wojtek bravely carried artillery shells and ammo crates across the battlefield. After the battle, the company changed its insignia to a bear holding an artillery shell, and Wojtek was promoted to corporal. When the war ended, Wojtek said goodbye to his compeers and retired to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived from 1947 until his death in 1963, and where a statue now honors his extraordinary life of adventure and achievement.