One of the weirdest and funniest and most touching stories to emerge from World War II is the story of Wojtek (pronounced “Voy-chek”) the beer-guzzling, cigarette-smoking warrior-bear of the Polish II Corps that fought with the Allies in Italy. Yes, that bear did all that and more! (You know you are a real gang of tough guys when you have a pet bear that drinks beer and smokes unfiltered Marlboros!)

But before we get into that, ya gotta know about the odyssey of the Polish soldiers. In 1939 the Nazis invaded Poland. The Polish army had no place to retreat since the Soviet Union was attacking from the east. Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers (and their families) were sent off to the Soviet gulags. (Some 22,000 Polish army officers and other members of Poland’s intelligentsia were later massacred by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest Massacre in 1940. . . but that’s another story.)

Some Polish troops escaped through Hungary and made their way to France and England to carry on the war against the Nazis. On June 22, 1941 the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and pretty soon Comrade Stalin figured he needed as many extra troops as he could get. So, he started releasing Polish troops to form an army led by General Wladislaw Anders.

The army trained under Soviet authority, but was eventually expelled from the USSR in 1943 to go fight with the British Army in Italy. Some 50,000 troops (and their families) first journeyed to Iran where they were transferred to British command.

While in Iran, the soldiers found an orphaned bear cub for sale (a hunter had killed it’s mother). The orphaned Poles and the orphaned bear instantly bonded. They bought him, and in order to get him on a troop ship also enrolled him in their army, gave him a serial number and rank (Private) and a name (“Wojtek Perski”– Wojtek the Persian!). The cub went with them to Palestine, then to Egypt, and finally to Italy.

There the Polish II Corps swung into action, fighting ferociously against stubborn Nazi resistance. They defeated the Germans at Monte Casino, Ancona, Bologna, and in the final offensive at the foot of the Alps in March-April of 1945. By the end of 1945 the Polish Army in Italy had grown to 100,000 troops! Their increase in numbers came from Poles who had been conscripted in the German Army, as well as Poles escaping the Soviets and Nazi-occupied lands.

And what about Wojtek? The Polish troops trained him to wrestle, salute (he was a hit whenever visiting generals would show up), drink beer and smoke and eat cigarettes! But Wojtek was a soldier like the rest. The Poles rigged an ammo carrier on his back, so that during battle he would actually carry artillery shells up to his fellow soldiers on the front lines!

Wojtek (means “joyful warrior”in Polish) survived the war unscathed. He was honorably discharged from the army as a corporal (no lie!), and lived out the rest of his years at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland where many of his old soldier friends would visit him and swap stories.

The Poles won, the Nazis lost, and the bear retired.

I love happy endings.