Interesting If True - Episode 5: Brave Battle Bear
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that is the equivalent of a bathroom reader. Quick interesting facts and a whole lot of BS.
I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me are (introduce each host and their blurb)
I’m Steve, and I have news. We have a new cat. His name is Evander and he’s 5. Also, his breath smells like he has a rotting corpse stuck between his teeth. Vet visit later this week.
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that, while dogs are great, ancient-man really missed the ball on domesticating bears.
Jenn couldn’t be here today, but thanks to the power of forethought she’ll be joining us in 3… 2… 1…
Brave Battle Bear!
What’s better than pretty much everything?
And Shea can’t guess because it’s cheating.
How about a munition-toting, cigar-smoking, beer-drinking, Nazi-fighting, grizzly bear?
In honor of the recently observed Memorial Day, I bring the story of an Allied soldier who more people need to have heard of, Wojtek the Bear. (Who is referred to as a brown bear, but that’s also a grizzly bear, and I prefer that title.)
In 1942 a group of Polish prisoners of war, which included both soldiers and civilians, had been liberated from a camp in Siberia. The early days of WWII were especially awful for the Poles as Nazi Germany was of course marching thru, but the Soviets were also willing to round them up to work labor camps.
“The Allies got together in 1942 and made a pact with Stalin in which they could release the Poles to join the Allies’ troops,” according to Aileen Orr, author of Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. The soldiers (plus a few civilian refugees) were then sent on to Alexandria, Egypt where they would then travel to Europe to join the World War, already in progress.
Whilst in route through the Middle East, the newly liberated soldiers encountered a young boy who had discovered an orphaned bear cub in the mountains of Persia (now Iran). The boy wandered into the camp, hungry, carry the little bear in a sack, looking for food. It was April 8, 1942 and the group of un-homed, transplanted people were drawn to the little creature who had also lost his family and home (they did also feed the boy). The bear was tiny and malnourished, since his mother had been killed by a hunter and NOW HE WAS IN A SACK.
One of the civilian refugees in their midst, eighteen-year-old Irena (Inka) Bokiewicz was especially taken with the little furball and convinced Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to buy the young bear (rumored for a few cans of corned beef), who then spent the next three months in a Polish refugee camp established near Tehran. He was technically under Irena’s care, but the soldiers were also happy to babysit, feeding him condensed milk from an old vodka bottle, and marmalade (Pattington!), bits of fruit and honey. But his favorite treat was quickly discovered to beer, which became his favorite drink. (We’ve found our show spirit animal!)
I had no luck finding exactly how long this journey to Alexandria was, but it’s looking like it was lengthy. By the time soldiers were on their way from the camp to join the newly formed Polish army, the little bear, who had been named Wojtek (an old Slavic name name meaning ‘Happy Warrior) was gifted to the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp. With the 22nd Corp he traveled to Egypt.
He became the official mascot of the soldiers, and as he grew developed adorable and soldier-appropriate mannerisms. Per time.com: “He would accept lit cigarettes, take a puff and swallow them,” said Dymitr Szawlugo, one of the soldiers who took care of the bear. “He loved to drink from a beer bottle, and when it was empty, he would look through the opening to see where the rest of the beer was.”
Since he was a precious orphan adopted by homeless ex-Gulag workers, he would cuddle with the other soldiers if they were ever cold in the night. He also seemed to really enjoy wrestling and play-fighting with the other soldiers. Of course, he was the most badass ass-kicking wrestler in the entire company, thanks in part to the fact that he grew to be six feet tall, weighed roughly five hundred pounds, and could knock small trees over with a single swing of his massive, clawed paw. When he got bigger, the men even taught Wojtek how to pick up new recruits and hold them upside by the boots to make the rookies think they were getting eaten.
He became a real soldier-bear, too. He learned to salute when greeted and, without prompting, began to march on his hind legs when he saw other soldiers doing so. When the motorized convoy was on the move, Woytek sat in the passenger seat of one of the jeeps, hanging his head out the window and shocking the shit out of people walking down the street.In fact, Wojtek was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, due to the fact that regulations forbade mascot and pet animals. Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo (mentioned above) were assigned as his caretakers.
But as Wojtek grew older and larger, so did his hunger and thirst. He was often found in the galley, eating anything he could (seeing as he was a bear, it was probably most everything there). He would chase after oranges that the men used for grenade practice. In fact, as an official soldier he was due a paycheck, which in his case translated into double food rations. Wojtek also learned how to break into the communal shower huts and turn on the shower on his own, which was a problem because the water was rationed and his ingeniousness would sometimes result in water shortages. So they opted to give a 500-pound bear their spare beer and wine, like you do. (Side note, if I were a WWII soldier I highly doubt I would have any extra beer or wine.) But his time splashing around in the bath houses wasn’t for nothing. While in Palestine, he had been barred from his beloved baths (bc Middle East’s water rations don’t equal bear-sized baths).
He took to loitering around the outside of the bath houses, and one day found the door unlocked. (Seriously, they kept him out by locking the doors, so A+ on well-made doors.) He wandered into the bath hut for some splashy-time and came across an Arab spy who had been planted to gather intelligence on the Allied camp. Voytek growled, slapped the dude upside his stupid Nazi-loving head, and the man (surely) immediately crapped his pants and surrendered. Either way, his screams immediately alerted the allied soldiers and the Soldier Bear was lauded as a hero for successfully capturing an enemy agent, who in turn was interrogated and gave up vital intelligence on enemy positions.
In 1943 the regiment headed off for Italy, where they linked up with the hardcore British 8th Army. It took some convincing for the Brits to allow this very, um, unusual soldier to be allowed to join the campaign. The Polish soldiers explained how he helped the morale and contributed in a variety of ways (spy-catching, anyone?) and eventually the British officials relented and gave him the permit needed to travel with the crew. At that point Wojtek was included on all official rosters and marched on shore with rest of the 22nd Artillery.
They headed out to one of their largest battles, what became known as the Battle of Monte Cassino, which was not nearly as much fun as it sounds.
In fact, per history.com,
“it marked one of the longest and bloodiest engagements of the Italian campaign during World War II. After attempts to overcome the Germans in the Liri Valley and at Anzio ended in stalemate, the Allies struggled to capture the western anchor of the Gustav Line and the Roman Catholic abbey of Monte Cassino. Two more offensives, which resulted in the destruction of the abbey and aerial bombardment of the region, again failed to produce the desired result. Only with the launch of Operation Diadem in May 1944 did the Gustav Line finally collapse, with the Second Polish Corps succeeding in capturing the abbey.”
It was this particularly intense battle, however, that cemented Wojtek’s status as the Best Bear (actual Corporal Best Bear, bc he got a promotion).
According to numerous accounts, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, when Wojtek’s unit conveyed ammunition, he helped by carrying 100-pound (45-kilogram) crates of 25-pound artillery shells, all without dropping a single one. He watched what the soldiers were doing and stood upright with his front paws outstretched, indicating his intentions. The boxes he carried normally required 4 men, and he would stack them onto a truck, or stack the boxes of ammunition onto each other. He worked tirelessly, day and night, bringing supplies to his friends who were bravely battling the Nazis. He never rested, never dropped a single artillery shell, and never showed any fear despite his position being under constant enemy fire and heavy shelling.
His actions were so inspiring to his fellow soldiers that after the battle the official insignia of the 22nd Artillery was changed to a picture of Voytek carrying an armful of howitzer ammunition. (On the other side of the same combat coin, imagine how disheartening it would be to a German or Italian soldier seeing that the enemy had a fucking GIANT GODDAMNED GRIZZLY BEAR fighting on their side.)
So yes, thanks in part to the heavy shelling by their artillery, the Polish forces broke through the Nazi defenses and captured Monte Cassino. Voytek and his comrades would go one to fight the Germans across the Italian peninsula, breaking through the enemy lines and forcing the Nazi forces out of Italy for good.
After the war, some elements of the Polish Army, including Voytek, were reassigned to Scotland, since Poland was under USSR control, and many Polish soldiers did not like the prospect of living in a Soviet-run police state. It was also likely most of the Gulag-released soldiers knew what they were talking about. They were moved to Berwickshire and stationed at Winfield Airport on Sunwick Farm. Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press, and the Polish-Scottish Association made him an honorary member. (His claw marks are still visible on trees at Sunwick Farm, says author Aileen Orr (mentioned above).
“(S)he grew up hearing stories about how people at the Scottish camp would feed the bear sweets like honey and jam, attempt to wrestle him, and kick around soccer ball with him. “He was very much a part of the community and attended dances, concerts, local children’s parties,” she says. “He was like a dog. He was almost human.”
When the 22nd Company was demobilized in November of 1947, Wojtek was moved to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived his remaining years. Though he was the main attraction for numerous visitors to the zoo he greatly missed his comrades in arms and always reacted joyfully to the Polish language. Some of his former fellow soldiers would visit him, giving him cigarettes (now unlit only). He passed away at the age of 21 on December 2, 1963. It was partly due to issues with his esophagus, probably not helped by his lifelong love of eating lit cigarettes.
In November of 2013 a bronze statue of Wojtek with a fellow Polish soldier was unveiled in Edinburgh. It includes a five-foot-long relief that documents his journey from Egypt to Scotland with the Polish Army. In fact, there are sculptures and memorials to the brave bear all over the world, including a plaque in the Imperial War Museum in London, a wooden statue in Grimsby, England and a statue in Krakow.
There is a 2011 British documentary called ‘Wojtek-The Bear That Went to Work’. It was also announced in late 2018 that an animated film depicting the story of Wojtek was in development by the same animators and executive producers of the Oscar-nominated film ‘The Snowman’ (from 1982, it’s pretty much a silent film, but very pretty). So it’s nice to see his memory will live on and I am going to find the documentary ASAP with a big box of Kleenex.
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Monkeys In Space -ace-ace-ace-ace…
Normally this story would be exclusive to subscribers at Patreon.com/iit, but we wanted to release the first few shows to everyone to give you an idea of what you can get for as little as a dollar a show!
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And with that, Aaron, is that a rocket in your script or are you happy to see me?
Sixty-one years ago today – as of recording that is – so… sixty-one years ago earlier this week, humanity shot two monkeys into space. What separates their story from other space-apes and Kosmo, is that they came back to Earth safely… but, sadly, without super powers.
Able and Baker took flight on May 28, 1959, soaring 300 miles (480 kilometers) up during a 15-minute flight. At the time, they were humble female laboratory animals, barely given names for the project before they were stuffed into a Jupiter Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile
In two years time the first humans would be shot into space. Unfortunately, Able would have already passed away and Baker was married off and put on display as a trophy monkey-wife.
“My whole jam with the history of the astronauts is kind of going one step back in time and going beyond the earliest stories that we know about them,” Jordan Bimm, a sociologist at Princeton University who has researched Able and Baker in this context, told Space.com. “Almost nobody remembers the story of Able and Baker, who were actually the first primates to be recovered from a spaceflight.”
So, like the contributions of most women in science, they were doomed to be forgotten or see all the credit go to further inflate the massive red-assed ego of some dude-bro monkey who, like totally for sure wrote the majority of the monkey-code or whatever.
They were American stars… I mean, once they landed. The preceding six consecutive monkeys dubbed Albert and one named Gordo all died of space or ex-space related death. Cold War stereotypes and symbolism, Bimm argues. “[Their survival] allowed them to perform a sort of PR work and to become, importantly, America’s first celebrity space animals,” he said. The monkeys flew as part of NASA’s Bioflight #2 mission, along with payloads ranging from blood samples to yeast cells to two frogs they could lick to ease their travels.
Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Bimm said:
“recovering these animals alive was a huge priority; they really, really, really wanted them both alive, getting some wins on the board for America was crucial.”
But with fame came… weirdness. For starters, at a post-space-monkey PR event Gen. Joseph McNinch misspoke, using “he” to answer a question about Able. Four days later a cartoon was published depicting Able in astronaut garb returning to a harried mid century monkey wife and baby, the very picture of a jetsetting businessman and absentee father. Seeing the comic, she died of shock.
Shock, I mean an infected implant. But they totally did everything they could, including CPR. She was widely eulogized nation-wide… but mostly as a male. Her body was taxidermied, dressed in her wee-little space suit, and posed hand-on-heart looking up at the stars like Zefram Cochrane. “Unlike other taxidermy exhibits, where the animal is placed in nature, in this one the animal, Able, is completely surrounded by technology,” Bimm said. “It has the sort of valence of the fallen soldier.”
For years, she was on display, first at “Baker’s Bungalow” in Florida, then at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, where her enclosure was labeled “The First Lady in Space.” She lived to be 27, a record for a Squirrel monkey. She spent her days signing her paw print to headshots on NASA’s tours. All the while 13 human women who wanted to go into space – and passed all the tests to do so – weren’t allowed to because … women.
Since then women have made it to space. And like their monkey foremothers, their uteri did not spontaneously explode when exposed to science and engineering, nevermind the sexist, sexist, vacuum of space. So… maybe more women in STEM please?
I’m Shea, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at InterestingIfTrue.com.
Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
The opinions, views and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms. All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.
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