Born in a village in central Java in January 1916, Sudirman took up studies at the Dutch Native School in Purwokerto, and then, being a devout Muslim, a Muhammadiyah teacher training college in Surakarta. Dropping out of teacher training, he nevertheless became a teacher (and later headmaster) in 1935 in Cilacap, continuing in this profession until shortly after the Japanese occupation of the islands in 1942. He volunteered to be trained as a battalion commander in PETA (Pembela Tanah Air), the “homeland defense” army established by the Japanese. He took command of a battalion based in Banyumas in 1944, and loyally put down a revolt by fellow soldiers. When Japan’s defeat became inevitable in 1945, Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesia’s independence in August and formed the TKR (Tentara Keselamatan Rakyat, or “People’s Security Army”) in October composed mostly of ex-PETA units.
While many of the PETA units had been forcefully disbanded by the Japanese, Sudirman had kept his Banyumas-based regiment together and even persuaded the retreating Japanese to turn their weapons over to him. The resulting arms cache was so large that he was able to distribute arms to other nearby Javanese groups, who thus pledged allegiance to him. His became the best armed and best organized military command in Indonesia in the aftermath of World War II. Sudirman in turn pledged his allegiance to Sukarno.
In November 1945, in an election to decide the commander-in-chief of the new nation’s military, Sudirman was chosen. In December, while waiting to be confirmed, he led a “coordinated attack” on Dutch and British forces in Ambarawa, driving them all the way to Semarang … from which the British soon evacuated. For the next five years, although suffering from tuberculosis, he led guerrilla actions against the Dutch, including the brilliant defense of Yogyakarta, then headquarters of the Republic of Indonesia. Sudirman died in Magelang in January 1950, just a month after the Dutch formally transferred sovereignty to the new republic.