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.

Whistling, whispering, fork-tailed Death from Above!

alienmarinesbugstomperAircraft nicknames – fact or fantasy? (This pic is neither – it’s sci-fi..)

This is one I’ve been meaning to do for a while now, and follows on from my Ladies From Hell post. If you can’t be arsed to read that too, it’s about the nicknames of certain infantry units that are supposedly bestowed by a terrified enemy, but actually seem to originate with their own side. In that case, evidence points to the kilted troops of the British Army and the “Devil Dogs” of the US Marines receiving theirs from the press. Once coined, the armed forces themselves were keen to adopt the morale-boosting, arse-kicking nicknames. These are by no means the only such nicknames though. The world of military aviation has spawned several famous ones from the Second World War, none of which are likely to have come from the enemy forces claimed. I finish with two modern examples that take us closer to an understanding of the reality behind the practice of nicknaming in war.

Whistling Death

First up is a name usually applied to the American F4U Corsair naval fighter (I’ve found no reference to those operated by the British Fleet Air Arm attracting this honour). The claim (for example here) is that it was the Japanese who came up with the name as a mark of respect and fear for its capabilities. The usual explanation for the specific name is that the fighter made an unusual whistling sound thanks to the position and design of its oil cooler intakes, which is quite true, though not a unique feature. This always sounded more like a Western expression to me, and a trawl of Google Books shows that variations on the theme go back pre-war, and indeed pre-First World War. Just as interestingly, the same source shows that the US Army and the Coast Guard were both still referring to falling artillery shells using the term, throughout WW2. I’ve yet to find any Japanese reference or source – I could blame the language barrier – just because I can’t find it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not out there in Japanese script, or even buried offline somewhere. But this author HAS had access to Japanese speakers, and he at least seems sure that it was an American idea, not a Japanese one:

“The gull-winged F4U had a ferocious reputation amongst the Americans, who
nicknamed it ‘Whistling Death ….”

And in fact it’s that very difference in both language and culture that would make it surprising if the same expression/context had arisen independently for both. What would make more sense is if, as with the infantry nicknames, the nickname was one coined by the Allies themselves. Lending weight to this idea is this reference to a quite different (but equally whistly) machine, the B-26 Marauder – being given the same nickname. And with shades of the journalistic flair of “Devil Dogs”, sure enough, the earliest source I can find is from a gung-ho home front propaganda piece in Time magazine , October 1943;

“Soon after the Corsair went into action in the Solomons, the Japanese had given it a nickname worthy of their language’s tradition of poetical allusion: “Whistling Death.” They had reason.”

Notwithstanding this unsubstantiated claim, “Whistling Death” is most likely a part of the poetic tradition, but of the English-speaking nations. If you have evidence to the contrary, please do leave a comment below!

Whispering Death

Next, an alliterative variation on the same theme. “Whispering Death” was applied to the British Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bomber from, as far as I can determine, April 1943. Again the source is the press, though given the slightly sceptical tone, they seem to have picked it up from elsewhere as a rumour. There then followed, also in Flight magazine, a series of written-in post-hoc rationalisations for the name, which seems to have mystified some readers. The most popular explanation, even now, is that any high performance aircraft of the day might quietly surprise the enemy at low level. If so, why was the Beau the only one to receive it? Again, no sign of a Japanese source to back this up. For me, the most interesting thing is that though similar-sounding, Whistling and Whispering death respectively in fact express opposite sentiments/fears about attacking aircraft. Whilst different elements of the Japanese forces might hold these seemingly mutually exclusive opinions, it’s worth noting the stereotypical mindset of the US and British fighting man. The former is often thought to be aggressive, fiercely patriotic and proud of his country’s technological achievements (look, for example, at US nose art). The latter traditionally is more quietly confident in either his military hardware or his ability to overcome its limitations (witness the Fairey Swordfish being nicknamed “Stringbag”). I had thought it likely that journalists coined the phrases as bellicose and stoically effective expressions, respectively, of their nation’s fighting prowess. But in the case of “Whispering Death”, it’s likely that British aircrew did name it – but in that characteristically ironic sense. A 1949 official publication, and latterly, authors including Chaz Bowyer have suggested that it originated as a mockery of the very press practices that I’ve been talking about. I won’t quote from this excellent write-up summarising the evidence for this – I recommend reading the whole thing (scroll down). I think that the nickname might also have been a sarcastic reference Beaufighter’s design pretensions as a dogfighting machine. If this origin is correct, it’s equally ironic that “Whispering Death” had become a marketing tagline for Bristol Aircraft by 1945!

Fork-Tailed Devil

The last of my Second World War examples is the name given to the distinctive Lockheed P-38, another aircraft designed as a heavy fighter (and arguably more effective in that role than the previous aircraft). Earliest reference is once again the latter half of 1943, in Popular Science magazine. Here (along with the Flight mag snippets posted above and countless websites/forums etc today) we see the power of the enthusiast to propagate what is essentially rumour, simply because it sounds powerful and macho, just like the other names given in this post. This time “Nazi pilots” are cited, but yet again, no individuals or other sources are named – it’s simply asserted with a good amount of relish, and a vaguely racist rendition of a hapless Japanese (note, not a German) pilot getting hosed by the “Devil”‘s guns. Perhaps tellingly, the Engineering News Record then claims that both German AND Japanese pilots use the term! This is clearly exaggeration at the least (assuming either one did use the name), if not total BS. Were the Axis powers conferring on their cowardly conventions for naming enemy aircraft?! If this too is a piece of wartime propaganda (created by press or military), the modern-day US Air Force is still buying it.

La Muerte Negra

Bringing things up to date, there are also a host of modern claims to nicks like these (also on behald of enemy troops), like “Steel Rain” for the A-10 Warthog in the Gulf and even a re-emergance of “Whistling Death” for (of all things) the F-111 bomber in Vietnam! The only one I’ve seen that comes close to being what it purports to be is the 1982 Falklands War nickname for the British Sea Harrier fleet defence fighter – “La Muerte Negra”. An Argentine source today claims that it was an ironic name, if anything mocking the enemy whilst acknowledging their superior resources. Sea Harrier pilot Sharkey Ward states in his memoir that the term originated on Argentine national radio – it’s possible (though I really don’t know) that they puts the fearful/respectful spin on things, to emphasise the threat that brave Argentine pilots were taking on. Or perhaps the British aircrew misjudged the tone of the phrase, thinking it an expression of fear, and this is why they chose to taunt their enemy using their own phrase “La Muerte Negra, eesa cooooming!” (to quote Ward’s book). Either way, it’s not a case of our own side inventing the name – the enemy in this case really did coin the phrase, albeit with different intentions.

The Mosquito?!

Most interestingly, the only other verified use of a nickname for an Allied aircraft by their enemy that I’ve ever come across is also the most recent – the Taliban frequently refer to British and other nations’ Apache gunships as “Mosquitoes”. Now, clearly a handful of men with Kalashnikovs and Rocket Propelled Grenades must have some reservations about taking on a literatlly fearsome helicopter like the Apache. It LOOKS scary, sounds scary, and the weapons load that it carries definitely IS scary in a number of ways that WW2 pilots could never have imagined (night capability for one thing). And yet, the name the insurgents choose to use (picked up by ground troops on the ICOM system – see for example the recent books “Apache” and “Apache Dawn”) is defiant and contemptuous, indicating a minor but persistent annoyance that can be easily tackled. The facts (and widely distributed human remains after an Apache assault) do not bear out this attitude. Perhaps this is a function of the religious fervour with which Islamic insurgents fight. But I still think it fascinating that, for once, we now know what the enemy nicknames our nations’ hardware. And despite the awesome power of the aircraft and skill of its crews, it’s not as complimentary, exciting, or fitting a name as the ones we’ve imagined over the years for other aircraft. Even more fascinating is that the press are still at it, trying to turn it around and claim that to call an enormous death-dealing helicopter a “mosquito” is to say that it “flies fast, buzzes loud and stings hard“.

I don’t think the press/aviation enthusiast/warblogger spin washes. No – armed forces are typically defiant, irrespective of their nationality, or the technological might of their adversaries. “Mosquito” the sort of nickname, if any, that fighting people will give their enemy’s hardware – hiding their fear, not shouting it from the rooftops. Try to think of a single example of US or British forces, who both have a strong tradition of nicknaming their own equipment, doing the same to an enemy aircraft or vehicle in a respectful or fearful way. I certainly can’t. Messerschmitt 109s were “Yellow-nosed bastards”. the V-1 flying bomb was the “Doodlebug”. Nicknames to be sure, but ones expressing contempt or designed to psychologicall take the sting out of the attackers – just like the “Mosquito” gunship. Thinking back to the WW2 examples, especially those attributed to the Japanese – why would a force willing to fight to the last man think up such apparently fearful epithets? And if they did, why would they volunteer them to the enemy? Instead, it seems that traditionally we have done the enemy’s nicknaming for them, as a way of expressing our own admiration and affection for the inanimate objects that servicemen rely upon on a daily basis. In fact, as British soldiers and airmen tended to be affectionately disparaging about their own vehicles and aircraft, maybe this was technophilia by proxy? Whereas today, it’s possible to know precisely what our enemies think about our technology, just as we can know their opinions about us. And unsurprisingly, neither are favourable!