History Articles

History of Memorial Day: Why We Fight

May 26, 2006 /

John Petro 718469WHY WE FIGHT

The world is different than it was even a few years ago as we celebrate Memorial Day. We now are fighting a war, and we now remember why we fight. The History Channel re-runs the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” the adaptation of the Stephen Ambrose book about a company of men from the landing at Normandy through the end of the World War II.

During WWII my father crossed paths a couple of times with the Company E mentioned in “Band of Brothers”. Once at the Battle of the Bulge and later while liberating the death camp Dachau.

My father’s story is told in part on HBO’s website regarding the episode on the liberation of Dachau at: http://www.hbo.com/band/landing/why_we_fight.html.

His full story is told in pictures at https://www.billpetro.com/johnpetro

He rarely volunteered to me information about the War, but when I did asked, he would answer. He left me pictures taken during the liberation of Dachau. Ironically, during a recent visit to Dachau, when I told the workers at this modern memorial, they all asked me the same question: “Do you have pictures?” I still have these pictures of those who survived, who looked like skeletons. I also have pictures of the skeletons of those who did not survive, of the open boxcars with bodies piled high.

WorkMakesFree 728277

Dachau gate: “Work Makes Free”

My father had seen a lot of action during the war and later was in charge of three P.O.W. camps for German prisoners, but nothing prepared him for what he saw at Dachau. He said that he watched his commanders vomit when they saw the camps. Those who were liberated were like the dead, they could not believe that they were finally being freed.

Rainbow 727212When I stood before this plaque attached to the tunnel leading up to the gate shown above, even with the school children running around playing in the yard on field day, I wept as I considered the bravery of my father’s group, Rainbow Division, one of three to liberate the camp.

These gruesome images must never be forgotten. It must never be forgotten what barbarism that man is capable of committing toward fellow men. But some may say, “I don’t want to think about it, surely no one believes that these atrocities were justified, that they’d ever be repeated.” But only two decades ago, an organization asked to use University of California conference grounds property for a meeting. This request was later denied when it was learned that the organization requesting the facilities believed that the Holocaust was a hoax, that it did not really occur. There was also a corresponding outcry that this organizations’ free speech rights were being violated.

A person who remembers the past can be grateful for the freedoms that were purchased at great cost by those who went before them. They can memorialize those who fought and died, they can honor those against whom horrors were committed. A person without this sense of history is a severed person, self-referential, cut off from the past.

On this Memorial Day, the words of George Santayana, Harvard philosopher and poet are most apt:

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Memorial Day

May 25, 2006 /


The city of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, an American village on the National Historic Register, claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as does some 24 other towns in America. But Boalsburg’s claim goes back to a practice at the end of the Civil War. It does have an local museum, and a history that stretches back over two centuries. It’s claim is supported by pointing out, on a large sign near the center of town that:

The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves was begun here in October, 1864, by Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, and Elizabeth Myers.

Named for David Boal who settled here in 1798. Village laid out in 1808. Boalsburg Tavern built in 1819. Post Office established 1820. First church erected 1827. Home community of three United States ambassadors.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Cinco de Mayo

May 3, 2006 /

May5 733433CINCO DE MAYO

Cinco de Mayo is frequently regarded as the Mexican equivalent of the United States 4th of July. This is incorrect. In actuality, it is the equivalent of the 5th of May. Nevertheless, a number of important things have occurred in Mexican history on the 5th of May, indeed, on a number of different May 5ths throughout the years. One of these is the commemoration of the last Beer Bust held at Sun Microsystems. But this is relatively insignificant historically. Of greater importance is the battle of Cinco de Mayo that occurred in 1862.

Juarez, who had been Zapotec Indian minister of Justice in Juan Alvarez’ cabinet in the 1850’s, entered Mexico City on January 11, 1861 and promptly expelled the Spanish minister, the papal legate, and members of the episcopate. Additionally, he took steps to enforce the decrees of 1859 disestablishing and disendowing the church. He could not have known at this time that almost a century later, “antidisestablishmentarianism” would become the longest word in the English dictionary. Although Juarez was recognized by the United States and had received both moral and military aid from the US, there were over $80,000,000 in debts at that time to Europe alone. The Mexican Congress in July 17, 1861 decreed the suspension for 2 years of interest payments on the external national debt, and 3 months later a convention occurred between Great Britain, France, and Spain calling for joint intervention in Mexico.

As European forces advanced, and particularly the French troops, their advance was checked at Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of May Day

April 27, 2006 /

mayday 798263HISTORY OF MAY DAY

May Day is many things to many people. Etymologically, it is the international call for help. It is a corruption of the French imperative “M’aidez” meaning “Help me!” As a holiday it is claimed by many. It is known in the pagan world as “Beltane,” a fertility celebration, one of the four high holidays in the pagan calendar, Samhain on October 31 is another. Beltane is the day of fire commemorating Bel, the Celtic sun god. The early Anglo-Saxons began their celebration on the eve before, feasting the end of winter and the first planting. It was a time of revelry — note the song from Camelot “It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May” — with the selection of a May Queen and the ribbons of the Maypole. But this day’s celebration of the revival of vegetation goes back to the Roman practice of visiting the grotto of Egena. The people of ancient Rome honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime.

In 1886 it was co-opted as an international workers day to celebrate the 8-hour workday movement, following national strikes in the US and Canada. Later, the French declared May 1 the International Working Men’s Association holiday in 1889. Some countries consider May Day a bank holiday. This “Labor Day” is on one of the non-holy days in the calendar.

Occasionally, May 1st also marks the National Day of Prayer in the U.S. This day of non-sectarian prayer is observed on different days, but goes back to 1775 when the first day of prayer was declared when the Continental Congress “designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation.” President Lincoln’s proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual, national day of prayer. In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May.

A pagan festival, a labor day, or a day of prayer. May Day is many things to many people.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of the Players

April 16, 2006 /


You may be asking yourself, “Self,” you ask, “where are they now?” and well you might ask. What happened to our players AFTER the events in the Easter story?

herod antipas 744528HEROD ANTIPAS

You may remember that I had said Antipas’ taking to wife his brother’s wife Herodias led to his ruin. Actually it led to his death. Her ambition pushed him where he would not have otherwise gone. Antipas’ nephew, and Herodias’ brother, Herod Agrippa (who we meet in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the early persecutors of the new church) had spent and borrowed much money while he was in Palestine. He lived much of his time in Rome and was a close friend of the future emperor Gaius (Caligula). While riding in a chariot with Caligula, he commented that he could not wait until the then emperor Tiberius was no longer Caesar so that Caligula might have his rightful place. A loyal slave overhearing this relayed it to Tiberius who had Agrippa thrown into prison.

When Caligula finally did become emperor he released his friend and replaced his chain with a gift of one equal in size made of gold. He also made him a king of certain areas of Palestine. When Herodias learned that her undeserving brother had been made a king, she pushed her husband to go to Rome to appeal for the same boon. The tetrarch Antipas was mellowing with age and was unwilling. However, after much prodding from his wife, he began his journey. At the same time that he was appealing before Caligula, the emperor was reading a letter from Agrippa, accusing Antipas of treason against Rome, having entered into alliances with Sejanus, the Parthians (current enemies of Rome), and of gathering a large number of men and arms. When questioned about this army, Antipas admitted to having collected this militia. Caligula promptly confiscated all his property and exiled him for life to Gaul, though allowed Herodias, since she was the sister of his beloved Agrippa, to go free. To her credit, she accompanied her husband into exile, where he died shortly thereafter. He had ruled from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39, longer than any tetrarch in Palestine, save Agrippa II, son of his enemy, Agrippa.

Pontius Pilate 792825PONTIUS PILATE

Three years after the affair with Jesus of Nazareth, in A.D. 36, after having served 10 years as military and political prefect of Judea, a revolt started in Samaria. An obscure pseudo-prophet with Messianic ambitions had promised the Samaritans that he would uncover some sacred temple utensils that Moses has supposedly buried on their sacred Mt. Gerizim. The multitude that gathered came armed with weapons and Pilate ordered his troops to block the ascent. It came to a pitched battle. Pilate, having won, executed the leaders of the uprising. The Samaritan Senate complained to Pilate’s superior, the proconsul of Syria, who ordered Pilate to return to Rome to answer the charges against him. However, the emperor Tiberius died before Pilate reached Rome. Whether he was tried by the emperor Caligula, we do not know. Nor do we know what ultimately happened to him. Perhaps he was banished to Gaul. Some medieval legends have his restless corpse, accompanied by squadrons of demons, disrupting localities of France and Switzerland, causing storms, earthquakes, and other havoc. The early church father Tertullian claimed that Pilate “was a Christian in his conscience”, and the Greek Orthodox church canonized his wife, while the Ethopian church even recognizes a St. Pilate and St. Procula’s Day on June 25. Saint or sinner, Pilate probably spent the rest of his days as a retired government official, a pensioned Roman magistrate emeritus, enjoying a less than sensational fate.

THE SANHEDRIN sanhedrin 739700

The Pharisees had two main schools of thought, those that followed the rabbi Hillel, who stressed moderation and a certain amount of compromise, and those who followed the stricter rabbi Shammai, who would allow no cooperation with the foreign overseers. The school of Shammai eventually found expression through the Zealots, who ultimately fomented the rebellion against the Romans in A.D. 66 leading to the complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70. It was the school of Hillel that was able to survive and modern Judaism traces its roots back to this school.

The Sadducees did not proselytize as did the Pharisees, and as they only drew their membership from the aristocracy and the high priesthood, their party did not survive the destruction of A.D. 70.

Joseph, called Caiaphas was high priest until A.D. 39, when he was deposed by the imperial legate of Syria, Vitellius, (who had removed Pilate). The emperor Caligula eventually became jealous of Vitellius’ success in the East had had him removed from office. It was only through much grovelling and servility before the emperor that his life was spared. Pilate would have been pleased.

disciples 704756THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS

Two historical facts remain; the tomb was empty, and the lives of the disciples were changed. It should be added immediately that an empty tomb does not prove a resurrection, although a resurrection would require an empty tomb. Its occupancy, indeed, would effectively disprove it. Nevertheless, the disciples claimed that Jesus raised from the dead and appeared to many. As they spread the good news (Greek: euaggelion “good report”, to the Latin “evangelion”, to the English “evangelical”) this brought them into conflict with the Sanhedrin who were amazed that these unlearned men had filled Jerusalem with their teaching. The faith spread to all points and in Antioch they were first called “Christians”. This comes from the Latin ‘christiani’, like the word ‘caesariani’ meaning slaves or members of the household of Caesar.

The faith eventually arrived in Rome and first came into disfavor under the emperor Nero. A number of persecutions under various later emperors as well did not destroy this faith but seemed to refine and purify it as its martyrs became witnesses (for the word martyr in Greek means witness). In the early part of the 4th century the Roman emperor Constantine, before a battle was impressed to fight under the sign of Christ, and was victorious. Later, he made Christianity the state religion. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

In part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Good Friday

April 13, 2006 /

Via Dolorosa 754232GOOD FRIDAY

For centuries, pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa, “the way of sorrow” in Jerusalem, following the path Jesus took from the judgement seat of Pilate at the Antonia in the eastern part of the city through several “stations of the Cross” to the ultimate location at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial.

Following Pilate’s sentence, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Crucifixion was a form of torture and execution practiced by many of the ancient societies, including Persia, Carthage, India, Scythia, Assyria, and Germanic tribes. The Phoenicians were probably the first to use a transverse cross beam rather than just an upright stake in the ground. From the Phoenicians the Romans adopted this practice as the primary means of execution of rebellious slaves and provincials who were not Roman citizens. During the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66 for example, the Romans crucified 3,600 Jews, many of them of the aristocracy.

The victim was first scourged with a ‘flagellum’ to weaken them before he was hung on the cross. Near the top of the cross was affixed the ‘titulus’ or inscription identifying the criminal and the cause of his execution. Above Jesus’ cross in Greek, Hebrew (Aramaic), and Latin were printed the words “Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews”. The Latin acronym INRI comes from this; “Iesus Nazarethis Rex Iudaeorum”.

By the way, Jesus’ middle name was not “H”, as in “Jesus H. Christ”. Rather it comes from a misunderstanding of the letters “IHS”. This is an abbreviation of Jesus in Greek, “IHSOUS”, and should properly be written with a line above the ‘h’ signifying an abbreviation.

Death by crucifixion was painful and protracted. It seldom occurred before thirty-six hours, sometimes took as long as nine days, and resulted from hunger and traumatic exposure. If it was decided to hasten the death of the victim, his legs were smashed with a heavy club or hammer. However, Jesus died within just a few hours. The New Testament, rather than dwelling on this painful death, simply recounts that “they crucified him”.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

In part from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of the Trial of Jesus

April 13, 2006 /

Jerusalem via dolorosa 702272THE TRIAL OF JESUS


Jesus was brought before the powerful ex-high priest for a hearing prior to formal arraignment before the son-in-law Caiaphas. Jesus knowing this to be essentially a lower court inquiry blunted Annas’ questions by answering that what was known about him was “…public record”.


As it was after dark and the gates of the Temple were locked, certain members of the Sanhedrin met in the south west quarter of the city at tthe palace of the high priest Caiaphas, whose name means “inquisitor”. It was difficult to find a solid charge to stick on Jesus as the witnesses that were found could not agree, and according to Jewish Law, a minimum of two witnesses had to concur on a charge. A number of charges and questions were put to Jesus, but he refused to answer. Since no proven evidence had been introduced, Jesus was not legally obligated to answer, and Caiaphas knew it. If Caiaphas could not introduce a proven charge the case would collapse and Jesus would be more popular with the people while the Sanhedrin would be embarrassed. The high priest devised a plan that would create seventy witnesses. He prefaced his final question with the dreaded “Oath of the Covenant”. A reply of silence would be criminal, a false answer would be damnable. He said, “I adjure you, by the living God, that you tell us whether are you the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus not only answered affirmatively, but added that he was the Son of Man, an Old Testament title for God’s vice-regent on earth, a peer as it were, a divine being.

The high priest, hearing what he believed was blasphemy in his presence, tore his garments. He asked the assembled members of the Sanhedrin, seated in a semicircle around him, for their vote. The vote proceeded from the youngest to the oldest, so the elders might not unduly influence the younger members. The Temple police then beat the prisoner, which was standard operating procedure for the condemned. One problem remained; night trials by the Sanhedrin were illegal except in monetary cases. Therefore, the full council met again the next day, shortly after dawn for a roll call vote. A final complication arose. To avoid hasty convictions, the Jewish law postponed sentencing until the day following the trial. But this was illegal as the next day was the Sabbath, when only acquittals could be returned. However, in this emergency situation, this could be disregarded.

The Jerusalem Talmud tells us that forty years before the destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) the right to inflict the death penalty had been taken from Israel. As it was now Friday, April 3, 33 A.D., the Sanhedrin had to have the judgement ratified by the Roman provincial ruler, Pontius Pilate, who reserved the ‘jus gladii’, the law of the sword.


The Roman prefect’s usual residence was in the Roman capital, Caeserea, on the coast. As it was the time of the Jewish Passover, and the numbers of people in Jerusalem grew, Pilate journeyed to the Jewish capital to keep an eye on things. In front of the governor’s Jerusalem residence, Herod’s Palace, the members of the Sanhedrin gathered. As it was the beginning of the Jewish holiday, they remained outside the Gentile residence so as not to defile themselves. Pilate asked, “What charges do you bring against this man?” If the Sanhedrin were expecting the governor to rubber-stamp their judgement, they were disappointed, for this was the ‘interragatio’, the opening formula of a Roman trial. Pilate began to try Jesus himself. Since the Jews could not tell the governor that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, a religious charge that would make no difference to a Roman, they produced three charges: subverting the nation, forbidding tribute money to Tiberius Caesar, and claims of Messiah.

The first charge was serious, but needed proof, and Jesus had seemed to avoid politics. The second Pilate knew to be a lie, as the Pharisees themselves protested the tax. The third was the gravest. It was “maiestas”, high treason, the most heinous in Roman law (see earlier historical note on Pontius Pilate). After questioning the accused, Pilate could not get to the truth of the matter, and as it was now after dawn the crowds outside who were aware of the proceedings were getting noisy and ugly. Pilate heard someone mention something about Jesus being from Galilee. This would be to Pilate’s advantage, for Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee was in town and Pilate could easily and legally transfer the venue from the ‘forum delicti’, the place of offense, to the ‘forum domicilii’, the place of residence.


The Sanhedrin could expect a more favorable decision from Antipas since he had aided them before in affair of the votive shields. And Antipas was genuinely pleased to see Jesus, about whom he had heard much. However, Jesus would provide him with no sport. Although he appreciated that Pilate would do him this boon, he could not suffer the unpopularity of putting to death another prophet after killing John the Baptist. So after allowing his troops to give Jesus a gorgeous robe and then mock him, he sent the accused back to Pilate. The gospel writers tell us that after this Antipas showed his gratefulness to Pilate in friendship.


At this point, the gospel of St. John tells us, Pilate took the initiative and suggested flogging Jesus as an object lesson and releasing him. This practice of ‘fustigatio’ was to serve as a warning against further wrong doing. This did not satisfy the Sanhedrin, who were beginning to see Pilate equivocate and suspected an actual release. It was at this point that they pulled out their trump card, the ace up the sleeve. “If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar, everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” This was the key that would link the religious and the political. Pilate’s status as ‘amici Caesaris’ was in danger. His political career would be over, if not his life as well. He had already been warned once by the emperor himself. Pilate then passed sentence against this “king of the Jews”: constructive treason – implied maiestas.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

from Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time

History of Passover

April 13, 2006 /


This evening at sunset marks the beginning of Passover. Exodus 12 in the Bible tells the story of Passover from the life of Moses. Ten plagues were visited upon the Egyptian pharaoh (starring Yul Brenner, but much better in “The King and I”) to get his attention to release the “children of Israel” from bondage. The final plague was the death of the first-born son. The Jews were to smear the blood of a lamb upon their door posts, so that the angel of death would “Passover” them unharmed. Pharaoh relented and released the Israelites.

In making their hasty exit, the Jews did not have time to let their bread rise, so in commemoration, they celebrate the Passover Seder (“order”) meal with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and roast lamb to be eaten in traveling garb. This Feast of Unleavened Bread is a major holiday in the Jewish when Jews from all over the world return to Jerusalem. During Passion Week, which was at Passover, the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time would have tripled from its population of about 50,000.

Could “The Last Supper” (made famous by da Vinci’s painting) that Jesus had with his disciples in the Upper Room have been a Passover meal? It seems likely. It was at about the right time in the calendar. Some churches commemorate this meal by using unleavened bread for their Communion Eucharist.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

History of Maundy Thursday

April 11, 2006 /

Last Supper 702200MAUNDY THURSDAY

Amid the bustle of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter, Maundy Thursday is easy to overlook. Few calendars label it, and some churches don’t observe it at all, though it may be the oldest of the Holy Week observances. It’s worth asking why, and how, generations of Christians have revered this day.

The Middle English word “Maundy” comes from the Latin “mandatum,” meaning “command.” The reference is John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus spoke those words at the Last Supper, which took place the Thursday before Easter.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Maundy Thursday Evening marks the beginning of Easter Triduum. A triduum is a space of three days usually accompanying a church festival or holy days that are devoted to special prayer and observance. Maundy Thursday is followed by Good Friday, Holy Saturday and concludes with evening prayers on Easter Sunday.

Protestant churches that do observe Maundy Thursday may offer a dramatic re-enactment of the Last Supper or another special Communion service. Foot-washing services and adapted Passover Seders are also fairly popular, especially in Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical Protestant churches. Not surprisingly, Protestants generally stick close to biblical texts when constructing a special service. Catholic and Orthodox traditions add a few other elements to the observance.

In the Middle Ages, Maundy Thursday was sometimes called Shere Thursday, “shere” meaning “pure” or “guilt-free.” (“Shere” also had something to do with shearing, as it was customary for medieval men to cut their hair and beards on this day.) Medieval Christians believed they could achieve purity by performing penance throughout Lent. The Catholic church recognized the achievement by formally reconciling penitents and, in some areas, giving them a green branch. New converts who had prepared their hearts, and memorized their creed, during Lent were taken through baptism at the Thursday service.

Because of the Maundy Thursday connection with baptism, it has long been a Catholic custom to consecrate the year’s supply of holy oils for baptism, anointing the sick, and Confirmation on this day. Orthodox clergy take time during the liturgy to prepare the “Amnos,” the Communion elements that will be given to the sick throughout the year.

A few European countries have added cultural observances to the list of church traditions. In England, the monarch distributes small purses of Maundy Money to elderly residents of the town selected for each year’s service. The practice dates back to 1210, when King John gave garments, knives, food, and other gifts to poor men on Maundy Thursday in accordance with Christ’s mandate to love others. Germans, who call the day “Gr√ľndonnerstag” (“Green Thursday”), eat green vegetables, especially spinach. The association with green may come from the gift of green branches to penitents or from a confusion of the old German words meaning “green” (grun) and “to weep” (greinen), connected to the English word “to groan.”

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian