HAYWARD (KPIX) — On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a young radio operator on Mare Island got an urgent message in Morse Code. It was the first news to reach the mainland about the attack on Pearl Harbor and America has never been the same since.

E. “Paul” Ball was 15 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Two years later he joined the fight, enlisting in the Navy. On Tuesday, the 80th anniversary of the attack, a small group of veterans and city officials gathered in Vallejo to remember a moment in history that changed everything.

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“It opened our eyes, man, to stay prepared,” said Ball. “To stay prepared, at any time.”

The attack dragged America into a war it was trying to avoid. The nation gave up its isolationist stance. Cal State East Bay History Professor Dr. Robert Phelps said when victory was won, the United States emerged as the world’s primary superpower.

“I think it’s extremely rare to have this one event that just pushes a nation over the edge, and it’s never looked back again, in regard to how it deals with the world and manages its own defense,” he said.

But the country changed in other profound ways. as well. Advances in technology and industrial production made America powerful economically. The GI Bill made college available to everyone–not just the elite. The contributions of African Americans eventually led to the civil rights movement. And at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor’s Center in Richmond, Ranger Natalie Hurtado, said women proved to men and themselves that they belonged in the workforce.

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“It really took World War II, a crazy event, to show us what we had in us all along,” said Hurtado.

The Bay Area was also transformed by the war with many communities playing important roles in homeland defense and production of ships and other wartime materials. But not everything was positive. America began pressing its military might around the globe, leading to the Cold War and the disaster that was Vietnam. The simplicity of isolationism was gone forever.

“Which we’re actually seeing in the world today,” said Dr. Phelps. “December 7th. Isn’t it ironic that President Biden is meeting with Putin to tell him, hands off of Ukraine?”

In all, more than 16 million Americans served in World War II, with nearly 300,000 killed in action. More than 2,400 died at Pearl Harbor alone.

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And yet, 80 years later, Vallejo’s keynote speaker was the Japanese Consul General and the Japanese flag flew alongside the Stars and Stripes. Alliances may have shifted over the years, but there’s no denying, the world changed forever when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and awakened the “sleeping giant” that was America.