The case of the alleged reincarnation of James Houston Junior, an American pilot being shot down in Japan during WWII, is often seen as the strongest evidence for reincarnation. In this long article, I investigated this claim. While many putative pieces of evidence can have come about through foreknowledge, leading questions and false memories, there are a number of inconvenient facts that remain. Whilst they aren’t sufficient for proving reincarnation, they certainly make this case anomalous.
If any alleged case of reincarnation proved to be genuine, both Christianity and Naturalism might be gravely undermined.
In what follows, I sought to investigate one famous such incidents with the mind of an open sceptic, i.e. someone who carefully investigates the evidence without having a prior belief in the plausibility or implausibility of the phenomenon.
A good summary of the peculiar story involving James Leininger and his parents Bruce and Andrea can be found here.
This is an interview of the parents.
Psychologist Dr. Jim Tucker wrote a concise report here.
I base my analysis of the facts on the book “Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot” written by Bruce and Andrea Leininger, while, of course, considering the possibility they might misremember some things or get certain facts wrong.
I’ll start by quoting the “explanation” of two naturalistic philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin in their book “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Our Visions of the Afterlife”
Unlike Internet Sceptics, they are moderate and respectful and their text is a pleasant read.
They start by summarising the case:
“At the age of two, James Leininger began having frightening dreams that caused him to yell out and to kick, and claw in his sleep.
He’d dream that he crashed in an air-plane and was trying to escape. The details James shared about these dreams were astonishing. He demonstrated encyclopaedic knowledge about World War II aircraft, and he recounted facts about a particular aircraft carrier, the Natoma Bay, and its flight crew, including naming a fellow pilot, Jack Larsen.
Jame’s fascination with these aircraft and events in the war was not confined to his dreams. He drew pictures, acted out scenes, and talked frankly and in great detail about the battle of Iwo Jima. He signed his pictures “James 3” because he was, in his words, “the third James.”
As Jame’s parents began looking more deeply into their son’s behaviour and interest in the war, they noticed some astonishing coincidences. The details young James was relating matched historical facts. The Natoma Bay was an actual ship that fought in the battle of Iwo Jima. The names of people James talked about in his dreams were members of the flight crew on that ship. One of the pilot shot down had been named James. They began to suspect that their son might be the reincarnation of that pilot. With the help of Carol Bowman, a therapist known for her work on cases of reincarnation in young children, the Leiningers began to listen empathetically to their son. What they saw and heard in his words and behaviour only further supported their suspicion. They became convinced, even if reluctantly in the case of Jame’s father, that their son had lived a past life as James Huston, who was shot down in his plane over the Pacific during the battle of Iwo Jima.
This brief synopsis should be enough to give you a sense of why many have thought that the best explanation of Jame Leninger’s dreams and behaviour is that his is a case of reincarnation. This was a very young child demonstrating a fascination with certain kinds of aircraft and an apparent knowledge of particular historical people and events in ways that suggested that he was personally and deeply attached to them. It will come as no surprise, we’re sure, to learn that we are not convinced by the reincarnation hypothesis. It may be one possible explanation of things, but it is not an especially compelling explanation. This becomes clear once we take account of the full range of factors, including both details of James Leininger’s life and the overall explanatory context.
First of all, a young boy’s fascination with airplanes, even airplanes of a very particular make and model, should strike no one as remarkable in the least.
In general, and as every parent knows, young children become obsessed with people, places, and things. Often, these obsessions are often explained by exposure to the person or things…But sometimes, these obsessions should seem to come out of the blue. It would be rash, however, to claim that just because one cannot understand how a child came to be fixated on something, the explanation must be supernatural. It is better to think, instead, that one has simply missed or forgotten something relevant to explaining how the obsession began.
Jame Leininger’s obsession with WWII airplanes may strike one as an outlier, perhaps, because it is coupled with extensive knowledge of facts about both the aircraft and historical people and events. But before we jump to the conclusion that the best way to explain what is going on here is to appeal to reincarnation, we should consider whether there are any promising avenues for explaining things by more conventional means. And there does seem to be some possibilities here.
Consider the fact that the Leiningers visited a flight museum when James was eighteen months old. During their visit, James walked around the very type of planes he later claimed to have been flying in his dreams, Corsairs. His parents have even claimed that he looked like he was conducting a flight check. Noting this detail about James’ life seems like a promising start for providing an explanation of his obsession with ww2 aircraft, and his fixation on Corsairs in particular. By all accounts, James was a very bright child. It is possible that a bright 18-month-old could absorb many details at the air museum, especially in conjunction with listening to his parents or tour guides or others discussing the displays. James may not have had the ability at 18 months to put these experiences into words and express them verbally, but many of the details might have registered. Later, when he developed the capacity to verbalise, James would have been able to express the information that had registered earlier. We can thus begin to make sense of why James Leininger was so obsessed with World War II aircraft and how he knew what seemed like an uncanny amount about them. And we can do so without appealing to anything supernatural.
Even if James Leininger’s detailed knowledge of WW2 aircraft were to be explained in this way, it may still seem as though the case presents a serious puzzle. How could James have known the names of the people he recounted as being there within his dreams?
We are not at all sure how the explanation of these facts is supposed to go.
But it does seem possible to explain them without invoking reincarnation. Perhaps James heard these names somewhere. Maybe they were mentioned in a television program he saw (the Leiningers admit to conversing with James about a television program on World War II aircraft on the History Channel) or a book or museum panel someone (perhaps his parents) read to him. Perhaps his parents mentioned them in conversations at home. Children are incredibly perceptive, and their memories often outstrip those of adults. Given that he was obsessed with WWII aircraft, it’d be no surprise if James soaked up titbits of information that went in one ear and out the other for those less intent on the subject.
Once his parents and other adults began to ask him about these things, it would not be surprising if Jame’s interest in them increased. He may even have begun to seek out more information about these matters out of a desire to please his parents or other authority figures, such as Carol Bowman and Jim Tucker (another expert on reincarnation), who interviewed him in relation to the possibility that he was reincarnated.
The presence and interests of these people would be powerful influences on a young person at an age when the desire to please an adult authority figure is great. So there might have been a symbiosis between young Jame’s desire to please and his parents’ and certain researchers’ beliefs and prior assumptions about what was happening in his case. This could have led to Jame’s telling a story that suggested he was reincarnated, when in fact he was not.
Indeed, it would not be surprising if James Leininger came to “remember” events from a past life due to repeated, and possibly leading, questioning from his parents and other adults. It is a commonplace that the testimony of children is quite suggestible, and three- and four-year-olds have been shown to be more suggestible than even five- and six-year-olds.
Among the factors thought to explain the phenomenon of suggestibility in children are, first, that their memories are not as firmly implanted as those in older people and, second, that the mechanism for protecting and monitoring memories against suggestive intrusions are not as robust in young children as in older people. If James was repeatedly questioned about his dreams and his claims about a past life, especially by people who were themselves of the opinion that he had a past life, it would be consistent with psychologists’ understanding of how memory works in young children to suppose that he came to falsely remember and report various facts and events..
We stress that we do not take ourselves to have provided adequate explanation of the Leininger case. That is not our aim. What we hope to have done is to have shown how the approach we’ve been sketching in this book may be applied to this case.
Now, the authors themselves admit it is hard to account for the specific details given by James.
Systematic investigation of the case
In what follows, I shall examine different elements that have been claimed to show that James had memories of a past life.
At two-year of age, James was described as being “the centrepiece of a loving family of three living on the soft coastal plane of southern Louisiana” and Andrea’s “first and only child”.
But Bruce Leininger had four children from a previous marriage.
They didn’t live with James’ half-siblings so that the latter could hardly have contaminated their little brother’s memories.
We know that the parents hadn’t consciously heard of “Natoma” before and that the father had to search the Internet for that name before finding it.
How likely is that little James took in the name “Natoma Bay” while visiting the Cavanaugh Flight Museum when he was 18 months-old?
Before 2001, there is only one obscure book “USS Natoma Bay (CVE 62), VC 63, VC 81, VC9” written by the “Natoma Bay Association” dedicated to the plane carrier.
Otherwise, the boat is only mentioned in one or two lines of books dealing with WW2 planes.
In the great scheme of things, the Natoma Bay was really insignificant so far as the description of WW2 history was concerned.
Could “Natoma Bay” have been mentioned in a TV show James listened to and the parents overlooked?
As the carrier was far from being famous and only mentioned in very specialised books for historians, this is implausible. If the Natoma Bay was noteworthy enough to be mentioned in a TV show, it would play a significant role in books. I am open to challenges if some reader can found documentaries where it is mentioned.
Now what about the possibility that Natoma Bay was part of the WW2 aircraft show?
This cannot be dismissed out of hand as the Cavanaugh Flight Museum mentions an equally (and perhaps even more) obscure aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Cape Glouchester.
That said, we must bear in mind the fact that James was 18 months old back then. What is the statistical probability that a kid of that age would be able to grasp concepts such as the fact that an aircraft has to take off from a big ship?
I think that if you take many children of that age and send them to an aviation museum also dealing with World War II, only a small (if not very small) number of them will take in the name “Natoma” and correctly consider it an aircraft carrier.
It follows from all of this that it is rather unlikely that James would have come up with the aircraft carrier Natoma.
The next puzzle concerns “Jack Larsen”. Of course, James had no idea that there was a “Jack Larsen” on the “Natoma Bay” and neither had his parents at first.
As Larsen was still alive and wasn’t famous in the least, it’s extremely unlikely he would have been mentioned in the museum, in a documentary or in any common book.
The probability of correctly identifying Jack Larsen depends entirely on the ease with which James would come up with such a name (or unconsciously absorb it into his memory).
If a close friend of the parents was named “Larsen” or “Larson”, they would most likely have mentioned it in the book.
Let us now assume that the probability that James would absorb the name “Jack Larsen” equals its frequency in the American population. “Larson” and “Larsen” are the family names of 0.065% of all Americans. If we assume that 10% of all those Larson/Larsen are called “Jack”, we find a relative frequency of 0.0065%, i.e. 6.5E-05.
Jame’s “finding” Jack Larsen is not beyond the reach of chance but it isn’t an easy guess either.
I found out that there is a rather famous Jack Larson who recently passed away. He played the role of cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on The Adventures of Superman. But he wasn’t such a celebrity as Clark Kent (the actor of Superman), either. Since little James couldn’t read anything at that age, he must have somehow heard the name.
The probability of his choosing the name could be approximated as p(hearing)*p(choosing|heard), that is the probability of his hearing the name and of choosing it out of the names he heard.
It is possible but quite unlikely he would have listened to an interview of Jack Larsen while his parents were watching TV and picked up the name.
James’ GI Joes.
Jamees had three GI Joes with peculiar names.
“Hey, how come you named your GI Joes, Billy and Leon and Walter?”
Bruce’s parents knew no Leon and Walter.
“Because that’s who met me when I got to heaven.” James answered.
Then he turned and went back to play.
Bruce snatched a piece of paper and read it. He read it again but couldn’t bring himself to say what was on his mind.
He was holding the list of names of the men who were killed aboard Natoma Bay. He handled it to Andrea. On the list were James M. Huston Jr., Billy Peeler, Leon Conner, and Walter Devlin. Bruce gave her a flat look, then started shuffling and tossing papers around again. He had files with dates and details and could conjure up the records in a flash.
“They were all in the same squadron”, Bruce said. “VC-81.”
The three men were already dead when James Huston was killed.
Leon had blond hair exactly like James’ namesake GI Joe according to his cousin Gwen.
“He was an ideal boy: six feet tall, blond, blue-eyed, a football star who also played the violin.”
The final action figure [Walter] had auburn, almost red hair.
He was described as “Irish, with all that big red hair.”
The action Figure Billy himself was Brown-haired as Billy Peeler based on his photo.
Little James had no plausible way to find these names and these pieces information.
Could it be that James read the names in his father’s documents?
Since the father only got the list of the names of those killed in Natoma Bay after that James got the two first G.I Joes, this cannot explain how he chose “Billy” and “Leon”.
He baptised his third G.I. Joe “Walter” as he was fourth-year-old, at an age he wasn’t supposed to be able to read. It is possible but unlikely he looked into his father’s belongings, found the document, read and was able to understand it and picked out the name.
It is also very unlikely that the father would have read the names aloud and forgot about it.
Given that, it is a fair bet to suppose that James must have guessed the name by chance.
What is the probability of this occurring?
Once again, we have no better choice than to assume that the probability of choosing a name equals the relative frequency of the name in the American population.
The proportions of Walters, Leons and Billies (William) are 1.3374E-04, 4.615E-05 and 8.8894E-04. The probability of giving them the right hair colour equals 1/(3*2) = 1/6.
Overall, the probability is equal to 9.15E-13.
If these were nothing more than false memories, it is very astounding that James correctly found these names along with the right hair colours.
Given that only 21 men attached to the Natoma Bay died, this is really a remarkable match.
James Huston Junior’s sister Annie
Andrea Leininger discovered that James Huston had two sisters, Anne and Ruth, through the census record. Later on, Andrea contacted one of Houson’s cousin’s Jean who confirmed he had an older sister named Ruth who died and a sister Anne who was still alive.
James’ place in the family
James correctly called James Huston Junior’s sister “Annie”, as only her brother called her that way.
“He told Andrea that he had another sister, Ruth. Only he pronounced it “Roof”. She was four years older than Annie and Annie was four years older than James. When Andrea checked with Anne Barron, she said it was all accurate. Ruth was the oldest by four years, James the youngest by four years”.
Of course, this relies on Anne’s memory but the year of birth of one’s sibling is something almost all of us remember very well.
James’ knowing the name of the older sister Ruth might be attributed to sensory clues, namely to his overhearing the mother’s phone conversations but this is by no means certain.
We might further speculate that James’ Huston’s cousin Jean mentioned the year gaps between the siblings on the phone while the loudspeaker was activated but that doesn’t seem very likely.
Personal detail about the Huston’s family life
Things get a bit more ambiguous here.
We read: “Five-year-old James knew about their father’s alcoholism. He knew all the family secrets with a familiar intimacy.”
Here, we might envision that “Annie” asked leading questions to James.
“For instance, James recalled in surprising detail when his father’s alcoholism got so bad that he smashed things and had to go into rehab, he knew all about that”.
On the other hand, it also seems unlikely that Anne would herself take the initiative to mention such traumatising details to a five-year-old boy.
According to Jim Tucker, James already spoke of the alcoholism of his “father” when his real mother Andrea entered into his room with a glass of wine.
Given that, it appears likely that James did recall such details on his own, but this isn’t very evidential as this cannot be strictly shown.
James signed some of his drawing “James 3“. When he was asked why he signed them “James 3“, he said simply “Because I am the third James. I am James 3“.
If the parents recalled correctly, this would be a remarkable coincidence as the other James was James Houston Jr.
However, they might also have unconsciously put this into their son’s mouth in hindsight but that doesn’t seem very likely.
According to Jim Tucker, James continued to produce the same drawing even when he was four-years-old.
Bruce brought James to a meeting of the veterans of the Natoma Bay.
The man looked down at James and asked in a hearty, robust voice,
“Do you know who I am?”
James looked him in the eye, thought for a second, and replied,
“You’re Bob Greenwalt.”
“How did you know that?” asked Bruce.
“I recognised his voice,” he told his father.
Now, if James had never heard the name “Bob Greenwalt”, this fact alone would strongly point toward a paranormal phenomenon.
But is this the case?
One night, Andrea received a call from Bob Greenwalt she transferred to Bruce.
“A Bob Greenwalt want to talk with you” she said.
“I know who Bob Greenwalt was…” answered Bruce.
It cannot be conclusively ruled out that James heard half-consciously the name and some strong features of the voice because the mother might have activated the loud speaker.
Prenatal choice of his parents
One of the most puzzling episode concerns little James “choosing” his parents shortly before his birth.
“One day, after raking leaves together, Bruce told James how happy he was to have him as a son. James replied, “That’s why I picked you; I know you would be a good daddy.” Bruce did not understand. James continued:
“When I found you and Mommy, I knew you would be good to me.”
“Where did you find us?”
“Hawaii. . . . I found you at the big pink hotel. . . . I found you on the beach. You were eating dinner at night.”
Bruce was dumbfounded. In 1977, Bruce and Andrew indeed went to Hawaii and stayed at the Royal Hawaii, a pink hotel on Waikiki beach. On the last evening, they had a moonlight dinner at the beach. Five weeks later, Andrea became pregnant with James.”
We cannot entirely rule out the possibility that James saw the picture of the pink hotel and of the dinner at the beach somewhere in the house.
This doesn’t appear particularly likely because the parents would have remembered the pictures but this cannot be dismissed out of hand either.
Misidentification of the corsair
We now finally come to the only argument AGAINST the reincarnation hypothesis.
An exception was that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat, not a Corsair: veterans could recall no Corsairs on Natoma Bay. Nor could the details of James’s account of the plane being shot down be confirmed. However, a visit to Huston’s sister Anne Barron uncovered a photograph of Huston standing in front of a Corsair, confirming that at one time he flew this aircraft.
But even if James Leininger was really the reincarnation of James Huston Jr., we don’t have to expect that his memories would always be clear and precise.
What is more, Tucker contacted the Cavanaugh Flight Museum and learned that it had no Corsair on display between 1999 and 2003, the time period of James’s first two visits, so that this description cannot come from his early visit to the museum.
Under the hypothesis of reincarnation, it is not unreasonable to believe that James could confuse the plane he died in with a plane he was also familiar with and was proud to fly, as a photo revealed.
Battle of Iwo Jima
As the battle of Iwo Jima was very famous, it is not astounding that James Leiniger would be exposed to it or claimed he had died there.
That said, it is certainly curious that the only member of the Natoma Bay who died there was James Huston Jr.
The James Leininger’s putative reincarnation case is a complex one.
Many elements can be well explained through foreknowledge, suggestion and false memories.
It is, for example, conceivable that James was able to correctly identify Bob Greenwalt’s voice and describe his parents’ evening at Hawaii before his birth thanks to sensory clues and foreknowledge.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that little James would have come up with “Natoma” as that ship was rather insignificant and hardly mentioned to the general public. It is rather unlikely he would, by chance, utter the uncommon name “Jack Larsen” who appears to be a member of that very ship’s crew. It is unlikely he would have christened his three GI Joes according to the names and appearances of his real colleagues Billy, Walter and Leon while remembering having seen them in Heaven and it is really dubious he could have gleaned that information by sneaking into his father’s documents.
In light of this, other less evidential elements (such as James’s mentioning the alcoholism of his former “father” to Annie, his remembering his former sister Ruth, “James 3”, his death at the battle of Iwo Jima and his seeing his parent before his birth ) reinforce the credibility of the case.
Does that mean we must believe in the reality of reincarnation?
No. Unlikely combinations of events are bound to happen according to the law of large numbers. And if that proves to be insufficient, information gain through parapsychological means is (at least) as good a paranormal explanation as the reincarnation hypothesis.
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