Voytek, the Soldier Bear

Voytek may sound like an average (G.I.) Joe – but there are a few important distinctions. Voyek was quite a bit hairier than his fellow men. He could sleep for weeks at a time, eat every last bite of whatever sludge was being served at the mess hall – and did we mention he weighed nearly 500 pounds?

To his fellow soldiers, Voytek was just one of the guys. He loved to toss back a few beers with his friends, and indulge in a cigarette or two. Like the others, he had a rank and a number, and he fought with 3,000 of his fellow troops at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.

Voytek may sound like an average (G.I.) Joe – but there are a few important distinctions. Voyek was quite a bit hairier than his fellow men. He could sleep for weeks at a time, eat every last bite of whatever sludge was being served at the mess hall – and did we mention he weighed nearly 500 pounds?

No, Voytek wasn’t a long-lost ancestor of John Belushi – he was a brown bear. Strange as it may seem, he played a pivotal role in helping the Allied troops defeat Nazi Germany during World War II.

The bizarre story of Voytek the bear began in the Iranian mountains, where his mother was killed by hunters when he was only eight weeks old. A young Iranian boy rescued the young cub, putting him into his knapsack. When a group of Polish soldiers drove up, the boy gave them the cub in exchange for some corned beef, a penknife, a chocolate bar, and a few coins.

The cub was near death, and the soldiers didn’t think he’d survive the night, but they slowly nursed him back to health, feeding him out of a vodka bottle filled with condensed milk. During the months that followed, the cub grew larger and stronger. He learned to march in formation with the soldiers, and often rode shotgun in their truck. One of his favorite hobbies was wrestling with his Polish friends – occasionally, he even let them win.

“He was just like a dog - nobody was scared of him,” a veteran soldier, Augustyn Karolewski, told The Scotsman.

Though Voytek loved to play, the Polish troops soon realized they could put him to work, too: Who better to load heavy ammunition into their trucks than a brawny bear? During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Voytek helped out his fellow men by loading shells into truck beds for hour and hours without stopping, paving the way for an Allied victory.

After the war ended, Voytek lived out the rest of his life at the Edinburgh Zoo, where he was something of a celebrity. He died in 1963, and ever since, his remarkable story has faded into relative obscurity. But that may be about to change – a Scottish woman, Aileen Orr, is campaigning for a monument to this ursine military hero.

Orr first heard the legend of Voytek from her grandfather. “I thought he had made it up, to be quite honest,” she told The Scotsman. “It is just amazing, the story is totally amazing, and it would be good if we could have some memorial in Scotland, perhaps at Holyrood, to celebrate the bear’s life.”

We’ll echo that – we think everyone should know about this smoking, drinking, heroic bear. His skills could trump Lassie’s any day.

Originally published January 2008