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Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot, by Bruce and Andrea Leininger with Ken Gross

Cover of Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot
Publication Details: 
Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 978-0446509336
Publish date: 
June, 2009

Reviewed by Zofia Weaver

This review first appeared in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol 75(2).

Soul Survivor is a book written for the popular market and does not read like the usual type of publication reviewed in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. On the other hand, the case itself has been described by Jim B. Tucker, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioural Sciences at the University of Virginia and a well-known researcher of such cases, as “a spectacular example of the phenomenon of young children who seem to remember previous lives . . . Anyone interested in the possibility of past-life memories, or anyone who thinks it can be easily dismissed, needs to read this book” (quoted from the website of New Heaven New Earth). The story has attracted a great deal of interest on American television and the internet, resulting in new editions, including an ebook version, becoming available.

It is indeed a remarkable case, rich in detail and made stronger by the living witnesses who corroborate the claims. The story begins in 2000, when a two-year-old toddler, James Leininger, began to have recurring and frequent nightmares of being trapped in an aeroplane on fire and about to crash. James seemed obsessed with World War II planes, demonstrated knowledge of obscure detail (such as the fact that American pilots gave names of boys to Japanese fighter aircraft, and names of girls to Japanese bombers, or that Corsair planes pulled to the left on take-off), and mentioned names of people he knew as a wartime pilot (naming his GI dolls after them). Pieced together from his spontaneous statements and answers to questions, the information provided by James pointed to his experiencing the memories of a pilot, also called James, who flew from the aircraft carrier Natoma Bay, and was shot down by the Japanese during the battle of Iwo Jima (3 March 1945).

Research by the parents, Andrea and Bruce, revealed the existence of a pilot, James M. Huston, whose story matched that told by their son. Not only were the historical details accurate, but the names given by James were traced by Bruce to the actual persons (some of them living) through veterans’ associations. Meeting these people, and through them other witnesses, provided confirmation of many of the details mentioned by the little boy, including the description of James Huston’s plane being hit in the right engine in the battle in which he was killed. A search for James Huston’s family roots led Bruce and Andrea to James Huston’s sister, Anne, by then in her 80s, who was able to provide background information, and who became convinced of little James being a reincarnation of her brother.

What makes this story particularly impressive is the research which went into the toddler’s statements, and the fact that some details which initially seemed to be a mistake turned out to be true. One of the most spectacular of these concerns James’s strange fixation on, and knowledge of, Corsairs and their faults, even though these were not the planes that flew from Natoma Bay. The reason for this apparent ‘miss’ became clear when James Huston’s sister sent the Leiningers a picture of James Huston standing by a Corsair; he had been test-flying Corsairs modified for carrier use and could thus be expected to be preoccupied with their characteristics.

Another impressive anomaly again involved Huston’s sister (to whom James spontaneously referred as “Annie”, as her brother used to do). She sent the boy a picture of her brother as a little boy, painted by their mother; little James responded by asking Annie whether she still had hers; apparently, the mother had painted a picture of each of the children.

It is unfortunate that the quality of the writing, at least for this reviewer, detracts from the story and the characters involved. When seen in interviews (a number of interview videos are available online), Andrea and Bruce appear much more genuine, modest and appealing than the gushing terms in which they are described would suggest. Bruce’s Christian faith does not allow him to accept the idea of reincarnation, and the desire to disprove such a possibility provides much of the motivation for the effort he puts into researching the story emerging from his son’s statements and behaviour. The tension, and the disruptive effect of James’s nightmares are both believable, but the repetitive device of setting the scene with peaceful domestic detail while providing hints that something shattering was about to happen (for example, “the world of the Leiningers was about to spin completely off its axis”, p.66) quickly becomes predictable and monotonous. This hyperbolic approach tends to make one cautious about the factual content, but the trail of correspondence that must have been created during the father’s research, the numbers of credible and articulate witnesses, as well as the early involvement of the media with their documentary evidence, should make the case verifiable by researchers.

The Leiningers finally accept the link between their son and James Huston, and provide closure for it by holding a ceremony at the place where the latter was killed. By the time of the television interviews launching the publication of their book in 2009, James Leininger is eleven and these memories have faded, as is the case with many children claiming to remember previous lives which have been investigated by Ian Stevenson and other researchers. James’s story has many features found in other cases suggestive of reincarnation; the putative earlier personality died a violent death, James’s drawings are preoccupied with aerial battle scenes, his games and rituals reflect pilot routines and activities (such as pulling an imaginary something over his ear and imaginary something to his mouth when being strapped in the car, pp.76–77), and he has knowledge and attitudes beyond his years. Its cultural context is very different from cases reported in communities where belief in reincarnation is part of the tradition, and should provide a fascinating field of investigation in itself.

The book presents a case which does appear to be very strong in terms of evidence. One hopes that it will be possible to investigate it in depth. Whether it brings us any closer to understanding the concept of reincarnation, or poses yet more questions, remains to be seen.