Shot Down In Flames

shot down

Well, by skeptics actually, but the effect is much the same*…

Having the misfortune to watch GMTV this morning, I spotted what turned out to be this load of old bollocks, recycled for a UK audience – no doubt because the UK edition of the book they’re hawking was published today (August 3). It relates the story of a young boy who is claimed to have had a past life as a Second World War fighter pilot. This sort of thing (i.e. ‘evidence’ of reincarnated minors) is usually the result of a form of facilitated communication – concerned parents and/or psychologists or social workers who over-interpret a child’s statements and together create an entirely false reality – sometimes to explain some behavioural problem, sometimes just because they want their child to be somehow special.

It’s rather like Cold Reading as used (sometimes cynically, sometimes unknowingly) by ‘psychics’ – you start with something vague and general and whittle it down into a specific, plausible story that could just about fit the facts. This case is no different – as a poster on the JREF forum pointed out several years ago now – the kid had a) very basic awareness of WW2 planes (which many toddlers and journalists have) and b) frightening nightmares about dying in an aeroplane. Everything else, culminating in his ID as a specific individual – Lieutenant (JG) James M. Huston, US Navy – came from his facilitators. And even that information is all public domain stuff – no new historical revelation was made that could have helped validate the claim.

As for the much-vaunted drawings – do we see anything beyond typical toddler-level drawing skills, or a hint of the fighter-pilot knowledge that Gross and the others insist is there? No. We see scrawls – attempts at aeroplanes advanced for his age perhaps, but showing no real detail that might show familiarity with flying the things. And we see tanks – there weren’t many of those involved in Pacific dogfights. All of this ignored to focus on one vague but simple concept – the original dream involving death, fire, and a plane – which can then have the facts forced to fit it later on. The get-out that ‘he was only young’ doesn’t wash – either he’s privy to special knowledge over and above that available to a toddler, or he isn’t.

It’s interesting to note that in the GMTV interview, the boy is emphatic about no longer having the nightmares, and in fact, being unable to remember them. Either reincarnation curses the very young with traumatic memories of their own deaths, only to then take them away, or the nightmares were simply an anxious phase in the boy’s early development, since got over (perhaps even via this ‘unconventional’ therapy, but I doubt it).

Thanks to the international lag in the publishing and publicity of the book over here, some fellow sceptics have already blown the story out of the water. Amazingly, despite claims that the kid had no exposure to aviation or military history before his dreams, it seems that the kid was actually taken to an air museum well beforehand – as mentioned above the excellent Skeptico has a whole blog post about this which, actually, makes my own rather redundant – as it covers pretty much every angle. Even those historical details that have made it through the facilitation process and should therefore be watertight – dependent upon good research – don’t all hold up.

Take the type of fighter flown by Huston – JREFer ‘Gumboot’ has (amongst other things) pointed out that the original claim was for the distinctive gull-winged Corsair fighter – only when the father read that Huston was not flying that type at the time when he died did it change to the radically different Wildcat. The book’s authors address this, pointing out that James Huston’s sister sent them a photograph of him in front of a Corsair – he did fly them at one point. But note that they are modifying the claim – which was specifically that James had died in a Corsair. Whether he flew one at some point (actually pretty likely) is neither here nor there. He wasn’t flying them from the carrier identified by the facilitators, and he didn’t die in one.

Skeptico also details what I’m calling the ‘facilitators’ involved – from the doting father who reinforces what would otherwise be healthy roleplay by buying toys and books, to the published reincarnation proponent who brings the sort of leading questions that can be fitted after the fact to tidbits of historical research. It was only when the child was taken to a therapist that ‘evidence’ of his dreams being related to a past life first emerged, and then snowballed. The same thing has happened many times before, including in the much more serious creation of false memories of sexual abuse. The very young child aspect we have seen recently in the Cold Reading of babies by arch-scumbag and million-dollar challenge loser Derek Ogilvie – his victims were too young to talk at all, yet by focussing on the parents he could convince them that he was reading their child. The same might apply here – the hopes, fears and thoughts of James parents driving the narrative just as much as his own half-formed expressions. For example – the claim that James said his fighter was brought down by a ‘direct hit to the engine’. A toddler would not – could not – have articulated that phrase as written. An alternative explanation is that he was asked by a facilitator how or where the plane was hit, and he gestured vaguely at the front part of his drawing, or of a toy. One follow-up question of ‘was it the engine?’, and a child’s imagination or conception of air-combat (head-on attacks being relatively rare in reality) suddenly becomes an uncanny past-life memory of his own death.

One thing I thought it worth expanding upon is what amounts to the usual schtick in selling paranormal cases to the world-weary punter – the idea that hardcore sceptics have been swayed by James’ story – in this case they’ve not looked further than one of their fellow co-authors, who despite claiming to be a ‘rationalist secular skeptic‘, is iobviously not familiar with the relevant literature and has developed a ‘blindspot’ for this case. This can happen to any of us, particularly if we become emotionally invested in a story – but his disbelief about other fanciful ideas does not validate this one. For example;

“I’ve heard people say, oh, he must have been coached, or influenced by watching TV. But this was a child in his diapers, still sucking on a bottle. How could he be coached to know the flight characteristics of World War II era fighter planes? How could he know the names of the ships and the sailors who had taken part in a certain battle at a certain time?”

Gross (a fiction author and automotive writer) clearly doesn’t understand how this works – it’s not that the child himself is expounding upon such complex topics – the original statement could be as simple as ‘Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out’ (one of James’ actual comments). The facilitator then shows the child a picture of a certain aeroplane (as we know the father actually did), and the child nods or otherwise indicates agreement or disagreement. Then (say) a picture of a particular pilot. Again, agreement. The facilitator, without lying (or necessarily even intending to deceive) can then legitimately claim that a toddler knows about a specific incident in history. The exact method of arriving at a given final claim won’t be accessible to the rest of us unless the facilitator makes logs of each session or the father writes meticulous diary notes. Even then, what James actually said on a given occassion, and how that might otherwise have been interpreted by someone not invested in a pre-determined outcome (in this case making a child appear to be a reincarnated fighter jock). Then there’s this ‘evidence’;

“There were other odd things — when she sent James Leininger a drawing that her mother made of James Huston — the child asked where was the other picture? The other picture — buried up in the attic for sixty years — was a drawing of Ann. Her mother had made two drawings when they were children. How could James Leininger have known that? Ann was stunned. No one knew about that other picture. Except her dead brother.”

So like Cold Reading, it’s not even funny. The kid says something like ‘where’s the other picture?’ – he could have been referring to almost anything. The sister, filling the role of the sitter in my psychic analogy, seeks the meaning of this, discounts all other interpretations, and goes straight for the least likely – that the child somehow knows about a hidden second drawing of the sister. She supplies the meaning. If she had asked ‘what picture?’ and the child had said ‘you’, that would be more like it. Or if she had taken him to the house and he had made a beeline for the attic. Or any number of confirmatory things beyond blind faith that when he says ‘other picture’, he means what she imagines he means.

Reading Gross’s heartfelt testimony, it’s also apparent in his use of the words ‘cynical’ and ‘nay-sayer’ that he takes the word ‘skeptic’ to mean closed-minded, just as the believers do. This one exception has slipped through his scoff-net, therefore he stands by it. That’s not what scepticism is (read ‘should be’ – I’m as guilty of it as any!). The idea is to form a provisional conclusion based upon the available evidence and the nature of the claim – to keep that open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out. Gross continues to disbelieve reincarnation despite having “no reasonable explanation for James Leininger/Huston”. If this is true, how is he a sceptic? If I had come to the same conclusion, I would no longer be sceptical about reincarnation – I would (provisionally) be convinced of its veracity. Or at least have a burning desire to try to confirm or debunk that conviction – what issue could be more important than life after death, if we had anything like evidence that it might be true?

The saddest part of all this for me is that relatives and colleagues of the dead pilot have been taken in along with everyone else. It’s easy to see why people in their 80s would on some level want to believe that their long-dead loved-one had a fresh start in a new body – and that they might live to experience the same thing. So they buy into the same fantasy as thousands of others, because it brings quick-fix comfort and hope. Isn’t it enough to simply pay our respects to the dead? To grow up and live our lives with some of them as role models? To keep fiction in the ‘fiction’ isle?

*With apologies to Blackadder II.

6 thoughts on “Shot Down In Flames

  1. Reminds me of a tale I heard many moons ago on that old Michael Aspel show (The name escapes me- but it was one of those paranormal fact or ficiton style shows).

    Basically a man, not a child this time, was having a past life regression and appeared on an 18th century ship in the middle of a battle. He made the usually generic comments (from what I remember, it was years ago) but the comment that was held up as absolute proof of past life regression was he mentioned his hair was tied back in a “cue” and that this was not a word known in modern language to refer to having your hair tied back (You are probably in a better position to refute or confirm this).

    What struck me was the “making it fit” approach that the sitter adopted, after the regression.

    If the word is not in known or common usage then how do we know it really is the correct term, and if it is in common usage then how is his comment significant?

    I think reincarnation/ ghosts were my last main “woo” beliefs to vanish.

    1. As you suspected, absolute baloney. ‘Queue’ or ‘cue’ as a hair and wig style seems to have been well documented from the 18th century in which it was current, right up to the present day. Here are just some of the sources that the lifer could have read (leaving aside just being told about it of course!);

      As for ‘last woo’, it was dowsing for me. I have a long old article nearly ready on that subject. Prior to that – aliens! I blame Gillian Anderson.

  2. I didn’t se that particular show, but a remember a similiar program from around 20 years ago, which featured a man who claimed to be a reincarnated soldier from the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
    This character was, he said, a farm labourer who had been in a Lancashire regiment; the programme-makers took him to the regiment’s HQ in Preston, where he proceeded to amaze the regimental historian with his historical knowledge.
    Watching the show, I immediately noticed two things. The first was the man’s “in-character” accent; he was from the South of England, his character was supposed to be an 18thC Lancashireman. He should have spoken in a near-incomprehensible argot. Instead, he spoke in modern English, with no dialect words whatsoever, and no Lancashire accent. His accent was instead a very mild Manchester one – exactly the accent you hear on “Coronation Street”!
    The second odd thing was that part of the interview took place in the regimental museum where they were surrounded by antique weaponry. And not once did the excitable historian ask this “18thC rifleman” to demonstrate how he cleaned, loaded and fired his gun!
    I think that some kind of practical skill demonstration should be required for every claimed reincarnatee; my choice for most would be to hand them a pig and a knife and ask them to make sausages.

  3. I love that last suggestion, although I’m concerned that any TV types reading this might add it to their pitch for a new reality TV prog…

  4. Interesting- as a historian you should understand the rules of the craft. Under the rules of historiography a supposition is advanced, then evidence to support the supposition is entered to support the theory. I see no evidence of any such construction other than “Well, uh, gee, uh…. that can’t be right!” Open your mind to finding counter evidence, not supposition.,

  5. I think that between the lines there are some strange aspects to this case, on one hand there have been many movies and television documentaries on the Second World War so for the father to completely write off this possibility is absolutely preposterous – His vague knowledge of war planes could easily have been acquired after visiting the museum.

    Furthermore his father may have inadvertently been providing him with the information whilst researching history pertaining to the Second World War in an attempt to get more statements out of him.

    In my opinion rather than the vague knowledge of aspects such as a plane’s drop tank that could have easily been acquired are the names that he provided – Before his father substantiated the connection with James Huston Jr his son had stated that he had a friend called Jack Larsen, he also named three of his dolls individual names: Billy, Walter and Leon.

    He could have easily picked up the name ‘Natoma’ but the names of Huston Jr’s fellow pilots he couldn’t have. James Huston Jr really did have three other crew mates by the names of Billy, Leon and Walter who had deceased and did have another crew mate called Jack Larsen who had survived the Second World War. Assuming that the parents are being honest regarding the timeline of events and James Leininger had made these statements pertaining to Huston’s crew mates prior to his father researching through the muster rolls of Natoma Bay then that is strange and isn’t knowledge that could have been acquired normally but we have no way of knowing this.

    I found your mention to the discussion with Huston’s sister a bit biased on your part, you clearly picked the most irrelevant statement he made regarding another picture without mentioning the other things that he reportedly had told to James Huston’s that were confirmed by her as being correct:

    . James Huston was four years her junior

    . Their father was a violent drunk who went to rehab

    . Had a sister named Ruth (Although he pronounced her name as Roof so some may regard this as less impressive)

    . Ruth wrote for a local newspaper and was shocked when their mother took a job as a maid for a family that she was writing about

    If these are things that Leininger had stated spontaneously to James Huston’s sister then this would seem quite inexplicable but then again did Huston’s sister ask leading questions which lead Leininger to making these statements or were they mentioned by him totally on his own accord without any unintentional coaxing? There is no way of knowing this unless there is at least an audio recording of this meeting that could be scrutinised.

    I think that this type of sensationalism such as television appearances with cheesy talk show hosts trivialises it as well. I also think that too much emphasis is given on things such as his rudimentary knowledge of war planes which he easily could have picked up when he visited the air museum rather than the more vital aspects of the case that he couldn’t have acquired through normal means which would be along the following:

    . My name was James

    . I flew off a ship called Natoma

    . I was friends with Jack Larsen

    . My plane was shot down by the Japanese

    . Pointed at a photo of Iwo Jima and claimed that this is where
    his plane was shot down

    . Had named three dolls Billy, Leon and Walter

    Subsequent research then shows that there was only one ship called Natoma during the Second World War in it’s full entirety ‘Natoma Bay’. A former ship member is contacted who confirmed that a Jack Larsen did exist but did not know his whereabouts, he discovered that twenty men were killed from Natoma Bay and only one of these men was called James who was killed in action flying across Iwo Jima and amongst others were Billy, Leon and Walter who had perished before James had and were on the same squadron as him.

    First of all in regards to the name given of James, he was already called James and this may seem too coincidental. He could have acquired the name of the ship Natoma through normal means – But with the provided name of Jack Larsen this would seem very unlikely if we are presuming the honesty of the parents who made it clear that he had mentioned Jack Larsen before subsequent verification. The father had to first locate a former crew member to confirm that he even existed and then it took him a full year to find out any information about him which significantly lessens the fact that information pertaining to him on relevant sources such as The Natoma Bay Website was easily attainable it could perhaps almost be ruled out that James had first mentioned about Jack Larsen after acquiring this through normal means.

    In regards to the dolls names this is a bit more complicated – According to an excerpt of the book regarding this James first began calling his first GI Doll ‘Billie’ at sometime in 2000 which was before his father began to research about Natoma Bay and he had named the second doll ‘Leon’ in the Christmas of 2001 which was according to sources around the time when his father just began to research details pertaining to the statements provided by his son.

    He had named the third doll ‘Walter’ in 2002 which was around a year after his father had begun his meticulous research so hence the naming of this doll via none normal means is less likely with the doll he had named ‘Leon’ and a lot less likely with the doll he had named ‘Billie’. In my opinion it isn’t the individual statements taken alone, it’s when you take them into account collectively: How many war pilots have there been throughout history named James who had flown off a ship called Natoma, had a fellow shipmate named Jack Larsen and had died whilst flying over Iwo Jima?

    If there were many ships called Natoma in the Second World War which had many pilots who had perished by the name of James and there were more than a few Jack Larsen’s who had served aboard these ships this would significantly widen the applicability along many correspondences, but there was only one ship that went by the name of Natoma and amongst the twenty individuals who had perished aboard this ship only one of them was named James and there was also only one man by the name of Jack Larsen who was in the same squadron as him.

    This case has been blown out of proportion over the years, I think this has been mostly due to promotion on the parents part with a new age book called ‘Soul Survivor’ and frequent appearances on morning talk shows but I think once you strip it of all that there are seemingly inexplicable aspects to the case that cannot easily be dismissed as this article would suggest.


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