ST. PETERSBURG — In August 1943, after a firefight on Bougainville Island in the South Pacific, a U.S. Marine combed over the body of a dead Japanese soldier, looking for souvenirs. He found something in a pocket that surprised him: a news clipping and photo of a smiling American woman. On closer examination, he saw that the 18-year-old woman was about to compete in a beauty pageant representing St. Petersburg.
It struck the Marine as odd. St. Petersburg was his hometown.
He put the clipping into his pocket.
In 1945, Wanda Wilson was passing a quiet evening at her parents' home. Life was good. The St. Petersburg native was working for Florida Power and did modeling on the side.
She was also in love with Frank Badger, a handsome lineman for Florida Power.
A stranger visited the house that night.
Marine Cpl. Robert Goddard told Wilson that he wanted to give something to her. Something he had been saving.
Badger reluctantly retreated to the front porch with Wanda's father. Inside, Goddard produced the photo of a beauty contestant he had found 8,800 miles away in Papua New Guinea. He thought she might be the woman in the picture.
Wilson recognized the torn clipping, which announced her selection to represent the St. Petersburg Jaycees in the Azalea festival in Putnam County. It had appeared in a March 1942 edition of the St. Petersburg Times.
The photo had run nearly a year and a half before Goddard found it in the Japanese soldier's pocket.
No one could answer the obvious question: How did it get there?
A story about the encounter appeared in the June 10, 1945, Times. Wilson married a week later and became Wanda Badger. She worked as a secretary and later helped manage her husband's floral business.
Mrs. Badger died June 27 after a lingering decline. She was 88 and had no survivors.
An obituary covered her numerous civic activities, such as Sertoma, PARC and the Eastern Star.
Gary Mormino, a historian at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who teaches a summer class on World War II, learned of the 1945 news story in June after a student discovered it while scrolling through microfilm.
"It's one of the more amazing clippings I think I've found," Mormino said.
The story included Goddard's theory about how Mrs. Badger's photo wound up with a dead Japanese soldier. Several days before he found it, a detachment of American paratroopers had landed on the island.
All were killed. Goddard's unit had gone out to bury the bodies.
While they were doing that, Japanese forces attacked again. This time, the Marines repelled the attackers, killing all of them.
It was during the aftermath of that attack that Goddard found the photo on the dead soldier.
"It was not unusual for both sides to pick up souvenirs," Mormino said. "This all masks a dark and rather poignant chapter of World War II."
Taken together, the two attacks might explain how the Japanese soldier wound up with a clipping from the St. Petersburg Times.
At least, Mrs. Badger's friends think so.
"Some soldier, I guess, picked her as his pinup girl," said Jenice Reichenbach, a longtime neighbor. "Who knows how it got on the (Japanese soldier)? I guess he picked it up from the other guy. Then the next guy came along and found it."
But who was that first American soldier?
Mrs. Badger did not know. When shown a list of names, she did not recognize any of the paratroopers or any man with Goddard's outfit on Bougainville at that time.
Mrs. Badger spent most of her life in St. Petersburg, where her grandparents had once arrived by covered wagon, and was proud of her local roots.
She graduated from St. Petersburg High School before working at Florida Power. For many years, Mrs. Badger worked as a secretary for an insurance company. She and Frank lived in northeast St. Petersburg. She had no children but was a kind of neighborhood mom to many.
"This was a lady who was just so perfect in everything she did," said Marguerite Dawson, 89, a friend of 76 years. "She was so polite and yet down to earth."
Mrs. Badger stayed active in civic organizations and had served as president of the Insurance Women of St. Petersburg.
She hosted lavish parties at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club with floral centerpieces from Badger's Gardens, the business her husband started in retirement. Three times, the Woman's Service League named Mrs. Badger among St. Petersburg's "best-groomed" women, placing her in their hall of fame.
From time to time, the story about the clipping on Bougainville resurfaced, bringing up the same questions.
Like most others, Mrs. Badger surmised that the Japanese soldier had retrieved it from the body of an American.
"I think she was flattered," said Reichenbach, 57. "She always wondered who it was that picked her out."
After Frank Badger's death in 1991, Mrs. Badger traveled extensively. Several years ago, she began experiencing health problems, including dementia. She entered a nursing home for several months in 2010 but was unhappy. For nearly two years, she stayed with longtime neighbors Christine and Bill Honadle, who cleared out a room for her.
The old clipping remains among her boxes and files inherited by Reichenbach, who lives in Inverness.
Said Mormino: "It's got to be one of the great local mysteries."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.