2nd Lieutenant Rifat Sonsino, Tank Corps
On July, 1959, right after my graduation from law school at the age of 21, I was drafted into the Turkish army, and sent to Ankara, the capital, to the officers’ academy in order to be trained as a tank commander. After six months, I was assigned to the tank corps in Babaeski, a small town close to the Greek border. My job was to supervise the repair shop for all the tanks. I took care of the administration and, not knowing anything about the mechanics of our M 24’s, I relied on two USA sergeants who helped us with technical matters.
A few months after my arrival, the political situation in Turkey reached a boiling point. The Prime Minister Adnan Menderes (1899-1961), the leader of the Democratic Party, was losing ground to the opposition, and many young officers in the military were against him. On May 27, General Cemal Gürsel, the recently retired commander of the Turkish ground forces, initiated a coup d’état against the Menderes government. That night we, in Babaeski, were told to get ready to storm the city of Istanbul with all our power. The next morning, at dawn, I got on my tank, and, with hundreds of other military vehicles, we began to march toward Istanbul, about two hours away by bus. I did not particularly like this assignment, because of all the expected bloodshed, but, as an army officer, I had no choice in the matter.
A few miles into our trip, a jeep appeared next to my tank, and a soldier told me that the general of my brigade wanted to see me right away. I jumped off my tank, and reported to the central command. The general asked me, “Is it true that you have a law degree?” “Yes, my general,” I responded. “Good,” he said. “I am appointing you head of the military jail. Stay here, and take over your new duties now.” I was pleased and thankful that I did not have to go to Istanbul on this mission. So, I got down from my tank, and drove back to my new post.
In the small jail, I found about a dozen soldiers who had been incarcerated for a variety of military infractions, none too serious. I had a new office, and not much to do. I made sure they did not escape, that they had their meals on time, and did their daily chores. I also helped them with their legal problems. They trusted me and were very grateful. I spent most of my time, reading, studying and carrying out other duties in the military court. After a few months, I was reassigned to be the personal interpreter of an American general who was our military advisor.
In the meantime, the bloodless coup succeeded, and Gṻrsel became the new president. The former president, Celâl Bayar, one of the founders of the Turkish republic as well as of the Democratic party, was arrested and convicted but his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and ultimately released because of ill health in 1964.The Prime Minister Menderes was charged with violating the Constitution, and executed. All the members of the Democratic Party in the National Assembly, including Isak Altabev, a prominent Jewish congressman who was a friend of my father, were tried, and ended with many years of jail terms.
I was honorably discharged at the end of December 1960, and soon after I left for Paris, France to study, for six months, at the Institut International d”Etudes Hebraiques. In Aug. 1961, I left for Cincinnati, OH to begin my rabbinic studies at the Hebrew Union College. But I never forgot my military experience that gave me discipline, and taught me valuable survival skills.