If you ever want to waste a few hours of your day on a frustrating task, try to find the last time in history during which no wars were being fought anywhere in the world. It’s extremely hard to do and some folks suggest there actually hasn’t been a time when there was no war. Depressing!
With so much fighting afoot in our history it stands to reason many people have been involved in that fighting. In modern times, there’s an official process for this in most countries which require citizens to enlist so they can be formally recognized as soldiers. But not every formally enlisted soldier is exactly who you think they are.
10. Wojtek Was a Soldier in the Polish Army… and Also a Bear
Animals and war have a long history. Horses were used well before we have motorized vehicles, elephants had their day, and dogs still show up in fields of war all around the world. But most of those animals are not officially recognized as actual soldiers with rank. Some, however, rise above.
A Syrian brown bear named Wojtek was given the rank of private in the Polish army during WWII. It was a group of POWs that first discovered the baby bear in Iran as they traveled through the mountains from Siberia to Egypt. They carried the bear with them, feeding and caring for it, even as their release was negotiated and they were sent to Italy to fight with Allied Forces.
Wojtek grew up with the soldiers, even learning to smoke and drink beer, which are obviously not the best habits for a bear to have. It also learned to carry ammo boxes during battles on the front line though soldiers later stated it was only carrying spent shells, not live ammo.
The bear also learned how to salute and march. He wrestled and boxed and played soccer, too. He became the company’s morale officer, after a fashion. They even took on a bear holding an artillery shell as their insignia. He was eventually promoted to corporal.
After the war, the company went to Scotland, and Wojtek joined them. He helped around a farm and continued to play with his comrades until the company disbanded. Wojtek spent the rest of his life playing and chilling in Scotland, including enjoying the occasional cigarette and beer.
9. A Six-Year-Old Girl Was Enlisted in the Royal Navy in Australia
The armed forces of any country are subject to a seemingly endless chain of rules and edicts and procedures. There are codes of conduct, formal definitions and regulations and all kinds of red tape and bureaucracy around even the simplest of things. Some of it is remarkable nonsense, too. But at least the same nonsense can be manipulated in a pinch.
In 1920 there were strict rules for the Australian Navy regarding who could and could not be on board a military ship. For instance, under no circumstances was a woman allowed on board, although the Navy itself simply says “civilians” could not board. This would not have been a problem until the day Nancy Bentley was bit by a snake.
We all know Australian snakes are not to be trifled with. Nancy was just six-years-old and a snake bite could easily have been lethal for her. Worse, she and her father were nowhere near a hospital. But they were close to HMAS Sydney, an Australian warship.
Nancy’s father rowed her to where the ship was docked and begged for help. Captain Hayley knew regulations would not permit the girl’s treatment on board. But it would allow for a sailor to be treated. The captain ordered the girl to be formally enlisted into the Navy and she was brought on board.
The girl was given the rank of “mascot” and received first aid treatment before arrangements were made to get her to a proper hospital. Nancy made it to Hobart and survived her ordeal. Eight days after being enlisted she was officially discharged.
8. Just Nuisance Was an Official Sailor in the Royal Navy
Several dogs have saved lives during wartime and performed heroic acts that were later officially recognized. But the Great Dane called Just Nuisance seems to be the only one to officially make it into the British Royal Navy.
The dog was raised in Simon’s Town, South Africa, near a British naval base. The sailors were fond of the dog and would often walk him and feed him treats. He would often sleep on the gangplank of the HMS Neptune. Because he was so large, almost 6.6 feet when standing on his hind legs, this made him a nuisance to get around, hence the name.
So how did Nuisance become enlisted? Because he was a nuisance. The dog wanted to go on shore leave with the soldiers when they traveled to Cape Town. But train officials hated having the dog on board and started sending threatening letters to his official owner. Some included threats to put Nuisance down.
The sailors, who loved the dog, took this up the chain of command. They didn’t want to lose the dog either and their commanding officer, intent on keeping up morale, found a solution. The Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy enlisted Nuisance. This meant he was entitled to free travel on trains so the rail company couldn’t complain about unpaid fares for the massive beast.
His enlistment included full paperwork where his first name was listed as “Just” because it couldn’t be blank. He was given a medical exam and signed it with his own paw print. His official rank was Ordinary Seaman and though he never saw combat, he proved an valued member of the Navy on land. So much so, in fact, he was later promoted to Able Seaman.
Nuisance had an accident when he was seven and the Navy was forced to put him to sleep. He was given full military honors including a Royal Marine firing party.
7. William Windsor Was a Goat in the British Army
While some animals do well and get promoted through the ranks, that’s not always the case. A goat named William Windsor actually got demoted for his behavior as a soldier in the British Army.
William, also called Billy, was a Lance Corporal with the First Battalion Royal Welsh, could not keep in step during a parade in honor of the Queen back in 2006. He was demoted to Fusilier.
Billy was not the only regimental goat, of course, as monarchs have been presenting them since Victoria’s time in honor of a goat that is said to have led Welsh soldiers from the Battle of Bunker Hill. In 2022, Lance Corporal Shenkin was on hand for the Proclamation of King Charles.
6. Donald Duck Was an Army Sergeant
We can safely agree now that animals serving in the military is not super unusual. That means we need to kick it up a notch with an animal that isn’t even real. We need to talk about Sergeant Donald Duck.
As you may have noticed, Donald Duck has always been dressed as a sailor. This dates all the way back to 1934. By 1941 he was officially drafted into the US Army, as opposed to the Navy where he seemed like he would have fit in, though he found a place there later. In 1942 he appeared in military cartoons as part of the US propaganda machine during WWII. Disney had been losing money and a government contract to make films promoting their war efforts paid the bills.
Disney produced several military and patriotic cartoons featuring Donald as an example of a solid American, even paying his taxes in what sounds like just a fascinating and exciting premise for a cartoon.
Donald also became an honorary member of the Navy and the Marines. Though he may not have been in the Air Force, his face appeared on the side of many planes. In 1984, 50 years after being enlisted, the director of Army staff officially gave Donald his discharge papers and released him from service. This was after his final promotion to the rank of sergeant.
5. Calvin Graham Joined the US Navy at Age Twelve
The youngest veteran in US history, Calvin Graham was only 12 when he joined the Navy. Graham had left home at age 11 back in 1941. He sold papers to support himself and so regularly read news of the war. The attack on Pearl Harbor convinced him to enlist.
To sell the lie, Graham began shaving, trying to get stubble. He faked a deeper voice and then forged papers signed by his mother and stamped with a stolen notary’s stamp. Things almost worked until the medical when the dentist saw his baby teeth and tried to give him the boot. Graham countered they had already let in 14-year-olds and he’d rat them out if he wasn’t allowed in, too. It worked.
Graham became an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS South Dakota. He helped shoot down 26 planes at Guadalcanal. Later, the Dakota took heavy damage and Graham got a face full of shrapnel, but he lived and helped his fellow soldiers.
His mother saw footage of the vessel’s return. She called the Navy about enlisting a child and they responded by stripping Graham of his medals, dishonorably discharging him and throwing him in the brig. It wouldn’t be until 1977, after years of hardship and additional service and injuries, that President Carter overturned the discharge and restored his medals.
4. Momcilo Gavric Was a Soldier at Age Eight
You’ve probably heard a tale or two about a soldier signing up for service before they were 18. This was something that happened with some regularity during WWII. Children as young as 14 scammed their way into service by lying about their ages and we saw how Calvin Graham served at 12. Technically this is both illegal and frowned upon, as we don’t want children putting their lives on the line. But child soldiers are far from unheard of. One of the youngest ever was Momcilo Gravic, a Serbian soldier at 8.
As World War One was starting, Gravic’s village was attacked and his entire family killed alongside everyone else. Alone, the boy headed out to find the Serbian army. They took him in and, moved by his story, officially admitted him to the division. Three times a day he was to fire a cannon to avenge his family.
Gravic stayed with the soldiers through many battles, even sustaining his own injuries. He attained the rank of corporal. At age twelve, when the war was over, his commanding officer gave him one last order. Head to London and finish school.
3. Jean Thurel Was a French Soldier for Nearly a Century
You expect most soldiers to be young and physically fit if nothing else, it probably helps during the physical part of war like trying to not be shot or exploded. But there is certainly room for people with more years and experience in command positions. You want a general who has been through some stuff in charge, not a kid who just read about it. But how experienced are we talking about? In France, it’s very experienced.
Jean Thurel was still busy soldiering when he was 100. In 1787, King Louis XVI awarded him the Médallions des Deux Épées for the third time. It was given to honor 24 years of service. He joined the French military in 1716 when he was 18 and served during four separate wars. He was still serving in 1804 when he was 106.
2. Monte Gould Was America’s Oldest Basic Training Graduate
Joining the military is typically a young person’s game these days. Fresh out of highschool is when many sign up, or soon thereafter. But it doesn’t always play out like that. Monte Gould is an absolute exception, having graduated from the US Army’s basic training course at the ripe, old age of 59.
Gould is a Marine and Army Reserve veteran and went through boot camp for the Marines back in the late 70s. He finished the modern BCT in 2020 in the top 10% despite his age, proving sometimes experience and skill beat youthfulness when it counts. But he was also quick to point out that it was a hell of a lot easier in his old age and Marine boot camp would be impossible now.
1. The Mormon Battalion Was the Only Faith-Based Regiment
Faith and military service have gone together for a long time but typically in a mostly pragmatic way. There are army chaplains but military service is not guided by any particular religious principles. In US history there has only ever been one entirely faith-based regiment – the Mormon Battalion.
In 1846, migrating Mormons appealed to the US government, and directly to President Polk, to help them. A man named Jesse Little proposed the President could use the Mormons to defend and fortify the West in exchange for aid. The President agreed and ordered the raising of a 500 man battalion. They would fight in the Mexican War. The Mormons agreed.
Though the battalion saw no combat, they endured one of the longest and most grueling marches in military history across 2,000 miles. They also had one official battle against wild cattle.