It was just a brittle piece of film found in a discarded old trunk on a little-known military base in Central California.
Who could have guessed it would contain never-before-seen images of one of the 20th century's iconic figures and spawn a mystery that remains unsolved, two years after its discovery?
Franco Federici, a 51-year-old photographer at Camp Roberts near Paso Robles, recalled his exact reaction when the images flickered out of a borrowed film projector. It was a eureka moment that flea market denizens can only dream about.
"We were kind of astounded and shocked," he said.
The woman who appeared in that long-ago winter scene at a military base in Korea was used to such reactions. Marilyn Monroe was at the time widely considered to be the most glamorous woman in the world, and her legend has not dimmed in the decades since.
In February 1954, she was at the height of her early popularity. She had yet to travel to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg, which would lead to her classic roles in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Seven Year Itch." But she would later say it was on the Korea trip, which produced near-riots among the servicemen, that she fully understood the effect she had on fans.
Korea "was the best thing that ever happened to me," she would say. "I never felt like a star before in my heart."
Experts say the silent footage, which lasts about two minutes and shows her riding on a tank and singing and dancing onstage in the rain, may be a unique historical artifact. The Smithsonian has exhibited still photographs from the Korean shows, but Federici said this may be the only candid film footage of those performances.
Joe Saltzman, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, called it "a valuable piece of footage. There were very few people as popular as Marilyn Monroe."
And most of what representations remain of a woman so cautious about her image that she spent hours applying makeup before leaving her home is carefully posed photographs and movies. So footage showing "what she was really like" is especially significant, Saltzman said.
Frank Goodyear of the National Portrait Gallery called it "absolutely" an important find. Saltzman guessed that, if the film were auctioned on Ebay, it might easily bring bids as high as $20,000 from Monroe's devoted fan base.
Federici reacted less like a star-struck fan than an interested sleuth. What was this? he wondered. And how had it ended up in a trunk at Camp Roberts? At first the discovery, far from any population and cultural centers, might seem as unlikely as spotting a penguin in Barstow.
But the camp had a distinguished association with Hollywood. Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello and Laurel and Hardy, among others, did radio broadcasts there for troops overseas in World War II. Camp Roberts then was a bustling tent city where hundreds of thousands of infantry and field artillery soldiers trained for battle.
Today, the base is a sleepier place, having been taken over by the California Army National Guard in 1971.
Federici said the Monroe film and a dozen other unmarked reels were discovered two years ago, in a trunk that had lain untouched on the base for decades. It was all turned over, unwatched, to the base museum, located in a nondescript building containing uniform and patch collections and a portrait of Cpl. Harold Roberts, the World War I tank driver and Medal of Honor winner for whom the base is named.
The 16-millimeter films sat in the museum for another year, and might have been forgotten once again but for Federici, whose resume includes stints as a flight engineer on B-52s during bombing runs over North Vietnam. He also was a policeman and security officer at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, where he honed his investigative skills.
"I'm a very curious individual," Federici said. So when a San Luis Obispo TV station expressed interest in doing a story about the history of Camp Roberts, he twisted arms to secure a projector. They put the first film in and up popped Monroe, climbing out of a helicopter.
Federici at first thought the film had been shot at Camp Roberts -- not a bad guess, since one of the camp's advantages as a training facility for Korea was the similarity of its topography. But the snow in the background convinced viewers it was not California.
From the uniform patches on the troops, Federici was able to pin down the event as Monroe's Korean trip. That journey may have inspired the actress, but not her new husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. They were newlyweds on a honeymoon in Japan in February 1954, when Monroe took a four-day detour to Korea.
The raucous response of the troops upset DiMaggio and provided a glimpse of the trouble that would lead to their divorce nine months later.
Federici has come to believe that the film was shot by an unknown serviceman who trained at Camp Roberts and "borrowed" a camp camera when he went overseas. After shooting the film, Federici thinks, he sent it to Japan for developing.
There, the trail runs cold. Perhaps the serviceman was shipped home before the film came back, or maybe he stashed it in his footlocker and forgot about it, along with the other dozen films, which show parading troops and ceremonies with three-star generals officiating. One figure, Federici said, resembles then-President Eisenhower.
In any event, the films were eventually shipped back to Camp Roberts, where they sat for years before being turned over to the museum. The only clue to the identity of the phantom cameraman was a recent call from a woman who said her brother might have manned the camera. Federici is still unsure.
The Monroe film has been transferred digitally for preservation. Federici has removed the original from the museum while he searches for a permanent home.
"I don't want to see this film destroyed," he said.