Syrian brown bears are noteworthy in all sorts of ways: they’re huge, fuzzy and endangered in most of Central Europe. But only one was ever a corporal in the Polish army. Atlas Obscura’s Cara Giaimo reports on Wojtek, the brown bear who helped change the course of World War II.
During the course of the war, Giaimo writes, Poles formed an army on Soviet soil before being marched to the Middle East to join British forces. Along the way, soldiers got their hands on an orphaned bear cub that became the mascot of the 22nd Artillery.
Giaimo reports that, as perhaps the coolest trained bear in history, Wotjek had a penchant for cigarettes, booze and arm wrestling. He was so beloved by the 22nd Artillery, notes Giaimo, that he was enlisted with a rank and serial number, then promoted from private to corporal.
Wotjek was of actual use during battle, writes Der Spiegel’s Danny Kringiel: He carried mortar rounds during the Battle of Monte Cassino and provided moral support for soldiers bravely fighting Nazis across the European and Middle Eastern theaters of war. Wotjek lived out his post-WWII days in a Scottish zoo and is even the subject of a documentary film.
For more information on the baddest bear in the Allied Forces, be sure to read Giaimo’s piece — it’s got plenty of details on Wotjek’s bravery, charisma and derring-do.