Last Thursday, ABC repeated its Primetime Thursday Special on Reincarnation, entitled “Back From the Dead”. This told the story of a little boy who appeared to be the reincarnation of an American World War II pilot shot down and killed by the Japanese. It seemed a pretty compelling story. From the ABC Primetime site:
From an early age, James would play with nothing else but planes, his parents say. But when he was 2, they said the planes their son loved began to give him regular nightmares.
"I'd wake him up and he'd be screaming," Andrea told "Primetime Live" co-anchor Chris Cuomo. She said when she asked her son what he was dreaming about, he would say, "Airplane crash on fire, little man can't get out."
Reality Check (sic)
Andrea says her mom was the first to suggest James was remembering a past life.
At first, Andrea says she was doubtful. James was only watching kids' shows, his parents say, and they weren't watching World War II documentaries or conversing about military history.
But as time went by, Andrea began to wonder what to believe. In one video of James at age 3, he goes over a plane as if he's doing a preflight check.
Another time, Andrea said, she bought him a toy plane, and pointed out what appeared to be a bomb on its underside. She says James corrected her, and told her it was a drop tank. "I'd never heard of a drop tank," she said. "I didn't know what a drop tank was."
Andrea says James told his father he flew a Corsair…
Looks pretty conclusive from the way it was presented on ABC, yes? Actually no. The TV company, looking for ratings rather than the truth, didn’t tell the full story. In particular, they missed this rather important piece of the timeline, as reported by the Pittsburgh Daily Courier:
At 18 months old, his father, Bruce Leininger, took James to the Kavanaugh Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, where the toddler remained transfixed by World War II aircraft.
A few months later, the nightmares began.
(My bold. Note: this information came from the child’s mother.)
According to the ABC special, the child “was only watching kids' shows… and they weren't watching World War II documentaries or conversing about military history”. Really? Yet somehow they forgot to mention the WORLD WAR II AIR MUSEUM he had visited. Sheesh! Don’t you think that revealing this information might have made a slight difference to the story?
It gets worse:
Andrea's mother suggested she look into the work of counselor and therapist Carol Bowman, who believes that the dead sometimes can be reborn.
With guidance from Bowman, they began to encourage James to share his memories — and immediately, Andrea says, the nightmares started to become less frequent. James was also becoming more articulate about his apparent past, she said.
I’d like to suggest a slightly different version of this story that is entirely consistent with the facts, but doesn’t require us to believe the extraordinary claim of reincarnation.
It starts when this child’s parents take him to a WWII air museum. Now, the article says this was the “Kavanaugh Flight Museum in Dallas”, but I presume it meant to say the Cavanaugh Flight Museum in Dallas. And at this place they have on display a WWII Corsair (the plane James will later say he flew). According to the museum’s Corsair web page:
The famous gull-wing design of the F4U Corsair makes the plane one of the most distinctive fighters of World War II
This young boy, not unusually, is excited by the planes, and remembers the name of the distinctive Corsair he saw with the unusual gull-wing, plus many other details, including things his mother didn’t remember, such as these drop fuel tanks that are also displayed at the museum.
Naturally, this small boy was fascinated by warplanes and he remembered obscure details about them that his mother didn’t. Of course, he enjoyed showing off this knowledge to her, later.
However, although he was excited by the planes, the images of WWII battles also frightened him, and they soon began to give him nightmares about being trapped in a plane on fire.
This is when the real problem starts. The child’s grandmother, for no obvious rational reason I can think of, suggests he is remembering a past life. She brings in Carol Bowman (an author of several books on reincarnation), to “affirm” James' nightmares. (Bowman is said to have been influenced by Ian Stevenson – another reincarnation proponent who is known to ask leading questions of young children.) Bowman “encourages” James in his fantasies, also with leading questions. Unsurprisingly, the child cooperates in this fantasy building. After all, they’re telling him he was a real pilot.
The father then starts to research the story, obtaining and reading books on WWII fighter planes. While reading one of these books with his father, the child points to a picture of the distinctive Corsair he remembers from the museum and says, "that was my plane." At some point the child starts drawing pictures of planes, signing them "James 3" (his name is James).
During this time the parents buy him plane toys and read him plane books. From the TV program we know they bought him a toy plane big enough for him to sit in, and every shot showed him in pilot’s goggles or by a plane. Carol Bowman asked him leading questions and encouraged his fantasy at every turn. Being a young child, he loved making up fantasies of being a pilot, to go with the toys he had been given. But they were just stories.
Admittedly there appear to be a couple of inexplicable hits. First, the child said he flew off a boat. When asked the name of the boat he says "Natoma", and when asked the name of someone on the boat, he says "Jack Larson". While flipping through another book on WWII, James points at Iwo Jima and says that's where he got shot down. The father discovers there was a boat called the Natoma Bay, and finds there was only one Corsair pilot from this ship who was shot down at Iwo Jima, and his name was James M. Huston Jr. (So now they have an explanation of the "James 3" he keeps writing on his pictures, since "3rd" would come after "Jr.".) Also, John Larson turns out to be a real person who knew James M. Huston Jr.
But do these few apparent hits really need explaining? First, James is not an unusual name. Little James wrote his name on his pictures as most children would, but the “3” could mean anything (and we have no way of knowing if it was written before or after his father found out about James M. Huston Jr.).
Edited to add:
As pointed out by Tim in the comments below, James had just had his third birthday, so it is hardly surprising that he started to sign his pictures “James 3”; at least, we now have a prosaic explanation for “James 3”. And as another person commented, James the third should be written “James III” not “James 3”. In summary: "James 3" means nothing.
“Natoma” is the name of a ship he could no doubt have seen in one of his father’s books. But “Natoma” is not quite “Natoma Bay” - and did he say “Natoma” or just something similar? We’ll never know. Only “John Larson” can’t be explained easily. But even with this we really don’t know:
- If James really said these words
- If he was prompted
- If he said it after his father had read the name to him, and the father’s timeline is confused
- If he said something close that the father mis-remembered later when he read the name John Larson
- How many other things the kid said over the course of four plus years that did not match up but that the parents have forgotten
Considering how his mother has apparently “forgotten” about the museum visit that started the whole thing off, I am disinclined to take either of James’ parents’ word for it that the child “remembered” these items exactly as claimed. This is hardly extraordinary evidence for such an extraordinary claim.
Paul Kurtz chairman of the Center for Inquiry and CSICOP, was briefly featured on the program saying he thinks the parents are self-deceived: “They're fascinated by the mysterious and they built up a fairy tale". Yes, that sounds quite possible. Following this, a TV company interested more in ratings than the truth makes a sensationalist program about it, conveniently forgetting to mention the museum trip that actually started the whole thing off. And so another legend is born, to be added to the literature that supposedly shows reincarnation really happens, to be repeated ad nauseam by believers. Yawn.
Edited to add:
According to this source, James Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat, not a Corsair as little James “remembers”:
From July to September of 2000, James began to tell his parents that the plane in his nightmares was shot down by the Japanese after it had taken off from a ship on the water. When James was asked if he knew who the pilot was, he simply replied “James.”
Andrea asked James what type of plane he was flying in his dreams, and he said it was a “Corsair.”
After vigorously checking into the squadron’s aircraft action records, [James’ father] found out that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat fighter plane – not a Corsair.
Which is the more prosaic explanation:
- James Huston was shot down in a Wildcat, and would only have had traumatic memories of being shot down / unable to get out of his Wildcat, yet inexplicably his reincarnated soul remembers being shot down in the Corsair, or
- Little James only remembered the distinctive Corsair from the museum, and so only made up stories about the Corsair?
I suggest that people insisting in option 1 above are unnecessarily choosing the less parsimonious explanation.