You could expect to see dogs in the middle of warzones, helping soldiers carry out their missions. In fact, around 20,000 dogs were deployed during World War II, as reported by National Archives. You could also expect horses, or maybe pigeons, but you wouldn’t expect to see a bear helping troops. However, during WWII, a 440-pound bear named Wojtek helped the Polish Army by carrying crates of ammunition for his buddies. And yes, he even became a corporal.

How Wojtek Was Found

Wojtek’s journey started in the spring of 1942. This was when the Polish armed forces and thousands of Polish civilians were on their way to a refugee camp. The camp was set up for the Polish exiles in the Middle East after being released from Russian camps. In the train station in Hamadan in Iran, the refugees came across a small boy with a small Syrian brown bear cub whose mother had been shot by hunters. Irena Bokiewicz, one of the civilians and great-niece of famous Polish General Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszowski, was prompted to buy the cub. She took care of the poor cub for the next three months.

Polish soldiers feeding Wojtek. thechive/History Collection

Raising a bear proved to be more difficult than they imagined(they don’t stay small and cute forever) as it began to eat them out of house and home, so they donated him to the Polish 22nd Artillery Supply Company.

Life with the 22nd Artillery Supply Company

And so the troops named the bear Wojtek from “Wojciech,” a Slavic name that means “Happy Warrior.” At first, they had problems taking care of the cub as Wojtek had problems swallowing. They had to feed him with condensed milk in old vodka bottles.

“He was like a child, like a small dog. He was given milk from a bottle, like a baby. So, therefore, he felt that these soldiers are his parents, and therefore he trusted in us and was very friendly,” Wojciech Narebski, who was a former Polish soldier, told BBC World Service.

Troops of the Polish 22 Transport Artillery Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) watch their comrades play wrestles with Wojtek (Voytek), their mascot bear.

They succeeded, and baby Wojtek grew and started to change his diet. The soldiers began feeding him with fruits and honey. They would reward Wojtek with beer for good performance or behavior, so he learned to love the drink. He never got drunk as a beer bottle was relatively small for his size. Later on, he also enjoyed eating cigarettes and drinking coffee in the morning with the troops. During cold nights, he would snuggle with them to provide some warmth. Wojtek also loved to play-fight and box with them. He just became part of their military family, boosting their morale.

The soldiers used to put him on the passenger side of the truck when he was smaller. However, when he grew so big, they had to transport him in the back of their trucks.

Becoming a Corporal

When the exiled Poles joined with the British Army in Egypt to help them retake Italy, they were informed that mascots and pets were not allowed under regulations. They wouldn’t just abandon their bear comrade, so they did what they had to do. They enlisted Wojtek as an official soldier, complete with a designated rank and serial number.