ALAMEDA -- Mighty forces arrive in large and small packages, a truth never more profoundly evident than at the Lazarex Cancer Foundation's "Battle for a Lifetime" gala.
Making his way on Saturday across the vast expanse of the USS Hornet's hangar bay, Louis Zamperini, the 95-year-old World War II prisoner of war survivor whose life became the subject of author Laura Hillenbrand's New York Times bestseller, "Unbroken," appeared tiny.
But his dramatic story, told by "60 Minutes" correspondent Bob Simon in a 30-minute video played before his introduction as the headline speaker, formed a towering example of fortitude and forgiveness.
After 47 days in a scarcely supplied raft on the South Pacific, two years of unimaginable torture at the hands of prison guards in Japanese prisoner of war camps and a recovery that included wrestling his inner demons with alcohol as his primary tool, Zamperini emerged: small in stature, but majestic in manner.
The evening reminded the estimated 430 guests that victory in war can be attributed to imposing military machines like the Hornet but more often life's hardest battles are won by courageous, individual men and women.
Cancer, the pernicious opponent of the foundation's patients, also presents itself in microscopic proportions. Left unchecked, its capacity to obliterate human life increases. The foundation positions itself as the victor in the war on cancer. President Dana Dornsife founded Lazarex in 2006 to assist cancer patients who have been told no viable treatment options remain. By providing resources to cover travel, lodging, unreimbursed X-rays and lab work, the nonprofit organization helps patients to participate in FDA clinical trials. A Diversity Impact Program reaches underserved communities and populations traditionally reluctant to participate in clinical trials.
"It started with Dana, me, Susan (Sappington, director of development) and two oncologists," said Halle Hart, Rockridge resident and board member. "We're all passionate about the cause, but without Dana, there'd be no Lazarex."
Hart added: "We're not just giving hope, we're giving real time."
Still, winning the battle is more than treatment, and Dornsife brought Zamperini from his home in Hollywood to highlight the need for continued warfare.
"Turn your head, look at the person on your left, then look at the person on your right," she said after Zamperini's brief question-and-answer session with the audience. "Cancer will take one of you. Cancer doesn't give a patient a choice, but Lazarex does."
Zamperini began his talk in the usual fashion, inviting military veterans to stand for applause. Skipping the terrain covered by the video, he dove into recollections of repatriation and repairing his postwar, tormented soul.
Refreshingly, the stories were full of humor and Zamporini's incorrigible love of food. Once, stopped for an interview by a Time magazine reporter with the power to get him quickly out of Yokohama, Zamperini could only think of one thing.
"Not escape," he said, laughing at the memory. "All I could think of was how much I wanted those doughnuts."
Eventually reunited with his family at home, he learned he was entitled to travel pay for the time he was lost at sea. He sent the military a bill for 47 days at the $7.60 per day rate.
"My request was denied," he recalled. "The reply said, 'Travel unauthorized.'"
Aside from the night's highlights -- Zamperini's heroic life story, a full harvest moon, music, fine food and airplanes, there were the lyrics of a song and a final missive from Zamperini.
"It takes courage to fight another man's war," Dornsife said, quoting a World War II standard.
"Have a cheerful countenance at all times," Zamperini said. "When you do, your white blood cells go up. If you're angry, they go down. So be cheerful."