Pete Fabregas was not yet 16 when he heard the news that had him and his fellow Americans wanting to enlist.
A Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack by hundreds of Japanese warplanes had damaged or destroyed one in five American warships stationed at the U.S. Navy’s principal overseas facility — a Pacific Ocean speck known as Pearl Harbor.
In little more than a year after the devastating raid, the Manhattan-born teenager would add to the human tidal wave that joined the military to avenge Japan’s “sneak attack.”
“I came out of my chair like I’d been kicked . . . ,” the retired social studies teacher said last week at his Massapequa Park home, recalling his reaction to a radio bulletin that described the unannounced assault on Pearl Harbor. “We felt betrayed.”
“The country was galvanized,” said Fabregas, 89, who still has the copy of the Dec. 8, 1941, New York Times — its banner headline fairly screaming “Japan Wars On U.S. And Britain; Makes Sudden Attack On Hawaii” — from which he gleaned details of the devastation the next day.
“There were guys in my neighborhood who packed their lunch and left their houses within minutes of the announcement,” recalled Fabregas, an energetic octogenarian who finally stopped working just this year, when his physician son told him to slow down. “I was envious of them, although I never saw some of them ever again.”
American troops stationed at Hawaii were still eating breakfast on the morning of Dec. 7 when scores of Japanese warplanes began raining bombs on American military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
Japan’s intention had been to crush America’s western fleet in a single blow, allowing Japan military primacy in the Pacific region, as well as unchallenged access to oil, rubber and other raw materials needed by Japan’s hungry military machine.
And it almost worked.
Of about 100 ships anchored at Hawaii that day, 21 were heavily damaged or destroyed, as were 323 American warplanes, according to the National Parks Service, which maintains the Pearl Harbor memorial site. About 2,400 Americans were killed, and nearly 1,200 wounded.
But the principal target of the raid — two aircraft carriers that were normally berthed at Pearl Harbor — had been away during the attack. The USS Lexington had left Pearl Harbor just three days earlier to ferry warplanes to Midway Island. And the USS Enterprise missed being at anchor during the attack by just a few hours, having been delayed by a storm while returning from a similar mission to Midway.
Their survival allowed the United States to pivot away from plodding battleships, and reconstitute its naval forces around aircraft carriers and the smaller, swifter ships more suitable to modern warfare.
Japan’s attack also helped to transform America from a reflexively isolationist nation into one that now has troops stationed in virtually every corner of the globe. Having remained officially neutral after World War II first flared with Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, the United States declared war on Germany four days after the attack at Pearl Harbor.
Little more than three years after the attack that had all but destroyed America’s Pacific navy, Fabregas was among American fighters that were steadily routing Japanese troops from their Pacific holdings.
Having enlisted in the Marines in 1943, Fabregas was among the first waves of Marines to land at Iwo Jima during the February 1945 invasion that brought America a critical step closer to its final defeat of Japan that August. The former corporal served with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines.
Three days after he came ashore, a sniper’s bullet zipped past his temple and killed his foxhole mate, Pvt. Paul Targonski.
“I needed to go to the latrine, but he pushed me aside and said in his Pennsylvania coal miner’s voice ‘Let me go first,’ ” Fabregas recalled.
“The bullet went right past my ear and hit him right square in the middle of his back. He went down like a rock,” Fabregas said. “I owe him my life, although he didn’t mean to. He stepped in the way of the bullet.”
Although he was injured by shrapnel hours later, Fabregas survived the war, was discharged in 1946 and eventually joined the influx of World War II GIs that helped create the Long Island suburb by moving to his current Massapequa Park home in 1955. He taught social studies for 42 years at West Babylon High School before retiring in 1987, and continued as a substitute teacher in the Farmingdale school district until this year.
He still recalls the wartime civilian drives to collect scrap metal, as well as the rationing of meat, sugar, butter and other staples to provide for America’s World War II soldiers in an era in which jukebox king Louis Jordan famously crooned:
“They reduced my meat and sugar
And rubber’s disappearing fast,
You can’t ride no more with papa
’Cuz Uncle Sam wants my gas.”
Now, Fabregas says, Americans have little sense of the collective sacrifice that allowed the Unites States to prevail despite Pearl Harbor’s devastation.
“We’re in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it seems so far away now, it doesn’t involve us emotionally,” he said, his voice weary with disappointment. “But the lives of everyday people changed almost instantly after Pearl Harbor. It was amazing.”