The first thing the research ship picked up in the darkness below was the trail of wreckage.

A jagged piece here, a hunk of twisted metal there. Clues, perhaps, to the demise of the mighty Japanese ships the R/V Petrel was searching for. Could this be debris from the enemy aircraft carriers as they were battered by American dive bombers?

Later, out of the gloom, a form emerged. The Petrel’s underwater robot circled it carefully, as experts studied the video feed and realized this was the Imperial Japanese Navy’s aircraft carrier Kaga, sunk at the World War II Battle of Midway.

The discovery last month of the long-lost Kaga and another Japanese carrier, the Akagi, came three weeks before the release of the new $100 million movie “Midway,” which opens Friday.

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The find served as a reminder of the violence of the famous World War II sea battle, and made for a contrast between the drama on the big screen and the reality on the ocean floor.

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The movie re-creates the epic June 1942 struggle in the Pacific Ocean with fitting bombast. There are explosions, grimacing pilots and bold, if mythical, pronouncements.

The sunken carriers, on the other hand, rest in the depths — shattered wrecks dripping with 70 years of sea encrustations.

The bow of the Kaga is deeply buried in the sea floor, which it struck after sinking through 17,000 feet of water. Part of its stern is gone — blown off in battle or in sinking.

Three thousand Japanese sailors and airmen died in the battle, and Japan lost its four best aircraft carriers — Kaga, Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu, according to historians Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully.

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All four ships had been involved in the attack on Pearl Harbor six months before, which plunged the United States into World War II.

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The battle came after American code-breakers figured out that the Japanese planned to attack the American-held Midway atoll, about 1,400 miles northwest of Hawaii. The Navy set up an ambush and assailed the Japanese force as it approached.

The Americans also lost many planes, pilots and sailors, along with the carrier USS Yorktown. But the battle changed the course of the war in the Pacific and led to the eventual Allied victory over Japan.

The Petrel is part of an underwater exploration project started by the late Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. The research vessel is owned and operated by Allen’s Seattle-based company, Vulcan.

The Petrel found the carrier Kaga on Oct. 16 and the Akagi Oct. 20. The Soryu and Hiryu have not yet been located.

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‘There’s a lot’ the movie got right

The movie, starring Nick Jonas, Mandy Moore and Woody Harrelson, is fairly accurate, with hiccups here and there, said retired Rear Adm. Sam Cox, an expert on the battle and the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington.

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Cox’s command helped in the making of the movie and in the search for the wrecks.

“There’s a lot of it that [the movie] got right,” he said. “There are quite a few things that are not historically accurate, but they’re for the most part things that you would have to be fairly knowledgeable of the Battle of Midway or Navy operations during World War II to catch.”

For example, there is a scene in which numerous American B-26 bombers drop bombs from medium altitude on the Japanese task force, he said. Actually, there were only four bombers, and they attacked with torpedoes from low altitude, he said.

One of the B-26s flew at the bridge of the Akagi, missing it by 10 feet, sparing Japanese Adm. Chūichi Nagumo and his entire staff. “Ten feet lower and those guys are all wiped out,” he said. The attack is shown in the movie, but the plane incorrectly swoops down from high altitude, he said.

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Cox said he was worried at first about Harrelson playing the role of the silver-haired Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, the top Navy commander in the Pacific. “But he actually gets it pretty close.”

He said Harrelson researched Nimitz, traveling to the National Museum of the Pacific War, in Fredericksburg, Tex., Nimitz’s boyhood home. “He went the extra mile and studied up on it,” Cox said.

The balding Harrelson is indeed a believable Nimitz, complete with a full head of neatly parted silver hair.

“In general, the [characters] for the most part are all true people, and all did what they are depicted as doing in the movie,” he said. “In some cases it’s been exaggerated. In some cases it’s out of proper time sequence.”

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“I didn’t want to nitpick the movie, because I really wanted it to be made, because I think it’s a fantastic story,” he said.

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A decisive attack

Even as the Navy was giving detailed help to the makers of the movie, it was also helping the searchers on the Petrel.

Frank V. Thompson, a historian with Naval History and Heritage Command, was aboard the Petrel as it scanned the Pacific looking for the Japanese carriers. His job was to help identify the wrecks, should they be found.

“When we first started our dives … we were finding really large debris fields on the ocean floor, but no wreck,” he said in a recent interview. “The more we thought about it, we wondered if we were passing over the point where the big dive-bombing attack took place.”

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American dive bombers had caught three of the Japanese carriers — Kaga, Akagi and Soryu — off guard and relatively close together on the morning of June 4, 1942. Within about five minutes, they delivered a devastating attack that doomed all three ships and altered the course of the war.

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“It was the single most decisive aerial attack in naval history,” Parshall and Tully wrote in their 2005 book about the battle, “Shattered Sword.”

Thompson said: “We were wondering … are we passing over that point in history?”

The Petrel followed the debris with its scanners and came upon a wreck. Thompson knew the Kaga had a belt of 10 powerful eight-inch guns — five on each side. The Akagi only had six — three on each side.

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As the underwater robot circled the wreck, beaming back real-time video, Thompson counted gun emplacements.

There were 10.

The Kaga had been hit with four or five large bombs in quick succession. They in turn ignited bombs, torpedoes and fuel aboard the ship. “The explosions … tore the whole flight deck and hangar deck apart,” Thompson said. “So you have all this debris flying through the air.”

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“The devastation is utter and complete,” Thompson said. “Even after 77 years on the ocean floor, you can clearly see the damage and destruction that was wrought by those four bombs. … Everything above [the] main deck … was pretty much collapsed.”

Anchor chains, portholes and loose guns were spotted.

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The Akagi, which had been hit with a single 1,000-pound bomb, was found with similar destruction, Thompson said.

The Soryu, struck by three 1,000-pound bombs, is probably not far away, he said. The Hiryu was hit last, by four 1,000-pound bombs, and also catastrophically damaged. But it managed to limp away before sinking. Thompson said it could be harder to find.

During the movie, Isoroku Yamamoto, the famous Japanese admiral, is depicted uttering his famous warning about the United States:

I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.

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“It’s a great quote,” said Cox, of the history command. “And it’s certainly in keeping with his beliefs. … He could have said it.”

But there’s no evidence that he ever did.

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