Past lives are a slippery subject. An unscrupulous astrologer could tell you that you were once Christopher Columbus’s red-headed Scorpio girlfriend, and what can you say? It can’t really be proven one way or the other.
Reality itself is the ultimate test for any theory. Much of the theory behind evolutionary astrology rests upon an acceptance of reincarnation, but how can we actually test any of it, let alone prove it? Our critics often make that exact argument and it is difficult to refute. Probably the best response we can put forth rests in the words of the Tibetan saint, Padma Sambhava, who once simply said, “if you want to know your past lives, consider your present circumstances.” The evidence of your prior lifetimes is, in other words, visible in your present life. The stories we tell based on our analysis of the Moon’s south node and the planets connected with it echo in our daily lives today. That’s really the heart of the matter and our best response to our critics – but it doesn’t get even close to really proving the idea of reincarnation.
And that circles us back around to our initial dilemma: our whole system rests on something that people have to take on faith – or not.
Compelling, objective evidence for the reality of prior lifetimes is actually fairly abundant. As I mentioned in the previous essay, I covered a lot of that ground in an early chapter of my book, Yesterday’s Sky: Astrology and Reincarnation, but that is not what this newsletter is about. It is about what is perhaps the most convincing evidence for reincarnation to emerge in a generation.
In June 2009, a bombshell book was published: Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot, by Andrea and Bruce Leininger. From his earliest days, their son James was obsessed with aviation, but at the age of two, he began having terrible nightmares about being caught inside a burning, crashing airplane. Tellingly, his knowledge of World War Two fighter planes was eerily specific. For example, he knew that a type of fighter plane called the Corsair tended to get flat tires. For another, at the age of three, his mother bought him a toy plane, and she pointed to something that appeared to be a bomb attached to its underbelly. She tells us that James immediately corrected her, informing her that it was actually a drop tank – an extra tank of fuel that could be used then dumped in mid-air – and not a bomb at all. "I'd never heard of a drop tank," she said. "I didn't know what a drop tank was."
Remember: when this conversation happened, James was only three years old.
As the wheels turned, young James brought forth more and more information, culminating in him naming the ship from which he had taken off – he called it “the Natoma.” He also recalled the name of his best friend aboard that ship, Jack Larson. Both of these highly specific facts were verified. Jack Larson turned out to be real – he was old, but still alive and well and living in Arkansas. And he had flown from the Natoma Bay, which was a small aircraft carrier serving near Iwo Jima in World War Two. Young James had told his father that he had been shot down in the fierce battle for that same island.
There’s more. According to a January 2006 story posted by ABC news, through some research, James’ dad, Bruce Leininger, learned that only one pilot from the Natoma Bay had actually been killed in the battle for Iwo Jima. His name was James M. Huston, Jr. Further research revealed that Ralph Clarbourne, a rear gunner on a U.S. airplane that also flew off the Natoma Bay, said his own plane was right next to one flown by James M. Huston Jr. during a raid near Iwo Jima on March 3, 1945. He added that, “he saw Huston's plane struck by anti-aircraft fire. "I would say he was hit head on, right in the middle of the engine."
This of course echoed young James’ nightmarish memory of going down in a burning airplane.
I’ve only scratched the surface of James Leininger’s story here. If you’d like to learn more, go ahead and read Soul Survivor. Leslie Kean's fascinating 2017 book, Surviving Death, also covers the tale with a journalist’s eye. If you prefer video, there’s a 2021 six-part docu-series, also called Surviving Death, based on her book. It contains compelling footage of the Leiningers speaking for themselves as well as a lot of other mind-boggling material.
Proof of reincarnation? Stories such as James Leininger’s are as close as we are likely ever to get to winning that grand prize. Disbelievers like to dismiss such tales with words like “coincidence” – or, worse, hoax. In this case, “coincidence” obviously strains credulity. Hoax is always possible – but see that chapter in Yesterday’s Sky if you’d like a source for another 1700 similarly-documented cases.
I was delighted to find A-rated birth data for James Leininger in AstroDataBank. Here’s his birthchart:
For those of you who are new to evolutionary astrology, let me provide a quick summary of our technique for scrying the outlines of a past life story from a present-day birthchart – or at least for getting to the karmic essence of it. I want to emphasize that these are stable, standard analytic techniques which I’ve taught to thousands of people, written about extensively, and used for many years with my private clients. I am not in any way adjusting the methodology to make it better fit Leininger’s story.
Let’s put the techniques to the test.
The process starts by discerning who the person was in the prior lifetime. There are three steps to accomplishing that:
- Look to the lunar south node in terms of its sign and house.
- See if any planets are conjunct the south node
- Look at the sign and house position of the planetary ruler(s) of the south node, and any planets conjunct them.
Next we discern the circumstances the person faced by adding two more steps to the analysis.
- What aspects (other than the conjunction) are formed by the south node?
- What aspects (other than the conjunction) are formed by the south node’s ruler (or rulers?)
Let’s go through these steps methodically one-by-one as we analyze James Leininger’s chart, seeing how well they resonate with the story he tells . . .
SOUTH NODE SIGN AND HOUSE
James Leininger’s south node lies in Pisces and in the 6th house. When we think of war, Pisces is not the first sign to come to mind. But remember: the south node refers to unresolved karma carried forward into the present life. If that is true, then we should see it quite visibly today.
Bull’s eye – exactly why are you now reading about James Leininger? Because he demonstrated the spectacularly Piscean mystical and psychic feat of recalling the details of a previous lifetime – details that were precise and verifiable.
That salient, defining fact of Leininger’s present life reflects Pisces perfectly – and hints at prior-life psychic development.
Take it a step further. Over the years ahead, how many times is James Leininger going to hear the words, “Oh, you’re the guy that book was about . . .?” Karma haunts us in the present life, and it is far from always being a welcome or pleasant thing.
What about the south node being in the 6th house? That spells duty, required behaviors, servants – and of course he was “under orders” in his prior life as an aviator. He was, after all, a soldier. How many truly Piscean souls have ever felt like going to war? Mostly, they did so only because they were required to. In this prior lifetime, James’ soul was conditioned by that classic 6th house parameter: obeying orders.
We might further tie house and sign together, and speculate that he had been some kind of spiritual disciple in a lifetime prior to his experiences as a World War Two fighter pilot – perhaps he was once a monk under vows of obedience and service, and perhaps that’s where he developed his psychic sensitivities.
Monks and nuns, by the way, “wear uniforms” in order to minimize individual differences. So do soldiers.
PLANETS CONJUNCT THE SOUTH NODE
In James Leininger’s chart we see two such planets, Jupiter and Venus, with the south node squeezed in between them. At a deep level, we are again seeing evidence of a person with a benign, loving nature.
Do we have a problem here? Initially, we are quick to recognize that so far none of this seems to have the slightest connection with James Leininger’s horrific past-life memories. But remember where we are in our procedural outline: we are still looking at his nature rather than at his circumstances. How many “benign, loving” humans have been caught up in war against their wills and their natures simply because they were “under orders?” Is that the story we are seeing emerge?
So far though, we’ve still not encountered any evidence of Japanese anti-aircraft fire – read on for that. We will soon get there.
Jupiter and Venus in conjunction with the south node can be read in a more superficial way too, and still tell us something that might be useful to know. Whatever its fearful realities, from a social perspective being a fighter pilot is a dashing, romantic role – at least that is the public perception. Jupiter and Venus reflect those “star” qualities.
If you doubt what I am saying, watch that old Tom Cruise film, Top Gun.
THE PLANETARY RULERS OF THE SOUTH NODE
In this case, we have two such rulers: Neptune, the modern ruler of Pisces, and Jupiter, its classical ruler. I always advocate using both of them, with the classical ruler often more focussed on the person’s objective past life situation and the modern ruler typically giving us more psychological information – what it felt like at the time more than what it looked like, in other words.
We’ve already explored Jupiter since it is conjunct the south node. All that we add by knowing that it is also the ruler of the south node is a little more emphasis on the “star quality” Jupiter dimensions of his previous identity, while fading the Venusian elements a bit simply by comparison.
Neptune has the nature of Pisces, and so the planet itself doesn’t add much that we have not already seen. However, Neptune lies in early Aquarius late in the 4th house, and that’s valuable new information. Neptune being in Aquarius adds a rebel note to the mix – that James felt like an outsider. The term “felt like” is echoed in Neptune’s placement in the very hidden and feeling-oriented 4th house.
Note how we are once again seeing the theme of a person under orders to be in a situation antithetical to his actual nature.
Remember though: our attention is still focused on learning about James’ prior-life identity. Figuring out the circumstances he faced still lies ahead in our analysis.
Superficial does not always mean unimportant, and astrology can often supply us with interesting superficial information as well as deeper psychological perspectives. Here’s an example of that. In the astrology books of the first half of the 20th century, Aquarius was often connected with aviation. That’s faded a bit lately. Nowadays we often see Aquarius connected instead with the digital revolution. Those are two entirely different subjects, but they both have the same archetypal Aquarian DNA – modernism, however it happens to be defined in the moment. Put yourself back in 1945 – airplanes, especially cutting edge fighting airplanes, were the essence of modernism, and James was piloting one of them. There’s an example of a very literal expression of the Aquarian dimension of his node-ruling Neptune.
Going deeper, let’s note that the 4th house is always connected with home and family. Let’s further add that Japan was a fearsome enemy, and that there were serious concerns that the Japanese war machine could defeat and subjugate the United States and rule it with cruelty. How many soldiers who fought in World War Two felt very sincerely – and quite rationally – that they were fighting to defend their land and the people they loved? There’s yet another 4th house dimension of our analysis – one that is particularly resonant with the self-sacrificial elements of Pisces and Neptune. “To be willing to die for your country” – how do we translate that sentiment into astrological language? Neptune in the 4th house is one obvious possibility.
So that’s who James Leininger was in the prior lifetime. That’s what his present chart reveals about his nature back then.
Let’s turn to the next question: what actually happened to him?
WHAT ASPECTS ARE FORMED BY THE SOUTH NODE?
The matrix of aspects (other than conjunctions) that impact the south lunar node, along with its planetary rulers, carry us directly to the next level of our analysis. With all that we have considered so far, we have been exploring James Leininger’s past life character. Now it’s time to add some plot to the story. What – and perhaps who – impacted him in this previous incarnation? What did he face? And what did he leave unresolved, to be faced again in this present lifetime?
In practice, I am particularly drawn to squares and oppositions at this stage of karmic analysis. They represent what we are up against. Trine and sextiles are evocative too, symbolizing supportive circumstances – or perhaps temptations not resisted. If the hard aspects tell a rich enough story, I find I often leave out the softer ones.
Immediately the eye is drawn to that all-powerful Pluto – it lies in Sagittarius in the 3rd house, almost dead-on square to that Piscean south node, only 38 minutes of arc away from exactitude. In everything we have explored so far, we have been looking at a person under 6th house orders to function in a situation that was counter to his nature. With this dramatic, frightening Pluto placement, everything now becomes vividly specific – sensitive, Piscean James Leininger was under orders, both practical and moral, to look down the barrel of Japanese anti-aircraft weaponry on Iwo Jima.
That interpretation is at least perfectly consistent with hellish Pluto “squaring him.” As ever, the astrological symbols indicate the outlines of the karmic story, not the specific facts. Pluto could have other meanings too, all of them nightmarish. Getting hit head-on by an artillery shell while flying at 350 mph over ice cold water is at the very least an excellent illustration. In Leininger’s case, we have compelling reasons to consider taking it literally.
I never like the term “bad aspects” or “afflictions” while talking about someone’s chart in the present tense. With prior lifetimes – with the water already under the bridge, in other words – I’m fine thinking of squares and oppositions in negative terms. In this case, we can surely see that the planet Pluto – a.k.a.,“the god hell” – afflicted James Leininger in a prior life, and did so with particular intensity because the square aspect was so precise. Further specific resonances of that symbolism are abundant. For one example, Sagittarius gives Pluto a foreign flavor – and of course the Japanese were viewed as an “exotic” enemy, as well as a viciously Plutonian one. And they did actually kill him – there’s that harsh square in action.
In The Inner Sky, I made the point that, instead of thinking of Sagittarius as the centaur-archer, it can be understood simply and purely as the arrow flying through the air – and that symbolism is quite literal and telegraphic in James Leininger’s case. That arrow can represent his fighter plane, but it can also refer to the artillery shell that crashed into his engine, literally “afflicting” him in an awful, fatal way.
Meanwhile, the 3rd house is often linked to speech, which has no clear connection here – but it’s also related to transportation and vehicles, so there again we have some solid possible airplane symbolism.
It’s time to insert an important note: normally in this kind of karmic analysis, astrologers are in the position of using the symbols to create a past-life story which we assume to run parallel to the actual reincarnational reality. The story is taken to be symbolic – true in some larger sense of the word “true,” but not necessarily factual. As evolutionary astrologers, we never make the indefensible claim of literalism; instead we claim evocative, even cathartic, emotional relevance. In this newsletter, we are in an entirely different situation: we are in the rare position, for starters, of actually knowing the past-life story. We are testing our methodology against known facts. That is not our usual situation – but it offers us a unique and precious chance for evolutionary astrology to face a reality check.
What have we learned so far?
Thinking integratively here, we have seen evidence of a fundamentally gentle, benign Piscean soul being attacked and shattered by the nightmarish “god of hell.” The symbolism is brutal – and so is James Leininger’s story. It was in fact so brutal and had such a profound impact upon him that the memories of it survived the mind-erasing trauma of death and rebirth almost completely intact. That is rare! Almost sixty years later, in a new body, he still remembered the name of the ship from which he took off for the last time, along with the name of his best friend. He still remembered being trapped in a burning, crashing, out of control, airplane. For that kind of karmic memory to make it through the between-life mysteries requires two things in abundance:
- One is an extremely psychic, extremely sensitive, extremely impressionable “Piscean” soul.
The other is an experience whose impact is so fiercely intense that it is practically branded onto the mindstream as if it had been applied with a red-hot iron.
WHAT ASPECTS ARE FORMED BY THE SOUTH NODE’S RULERS?
Jupiter – one of his south node rulers – is also squared by that same dramatic, traumatic Pluto, but that aspect only echoes what we have already seen. There is no need to repeat any of those points, although it’s worth mentioning that those same harsh themes are further underscored by this square aspect to the nodal ruler.
Neptune – the other south node ruler – is where we can take our story a step further. As we have seen, it lies in early Aquarius near the end of Leininger’s 4th house. Neptune is also in a wide conjunction with a powerful 5th house Uranus, also in Aquarius. That aspect is worth a few words. The “aviation” angle – modernism – is echoed yet again here. Going further, Uranus – lord of earthquakes and lightning bolts – has resonances with suddenness, shock, and trauma, and they are also obviously relevant.
Still, the Neptune-Uranus conjunction is very wide – just over that ten-degree mark I suggested earlier as a guideline, so I only want to mention it while not overplaying its role.
Where Neptune quickly becomes a lot more interesting is when we pair it with James Leininger’s Mars. The red planet is in an extremely powerful position, placed in both a sign (Aries) and a house (the 8th) that it rules. Even though Mars is in Aries and Neptune is in Aquarius, it is absolutely mission-critical that we do not neglect the fact that the two planets form a solid square, just three and a half degrees away from exactitude. We’re accustomed to thinking of Taurus and Scorpio as the signs that square Aquarius, so this pivotal aspect would be easy to miss. Making that error would leave us without a final, and extremely definitive, clue. It would also be a classic amateur’s mistake.
James is represented by that Neptune – that’s the meaning of it being the ruler of his south node. As such, he is personally “afflicted by” that hot Mars through the difficult square aspect.
At the most elemental level, Mars is of course the god of war, and it is especially virulent in that regard when it lies in Aries. The symbolism could hardly be more transparent there: in a prior lifetime, James Leininger was afflicted by war.
But we can take it a big step further. The 8th house was traditionally known as the house of death. What clearer symbolism could astrologers possibly invent for death by violence than to have an Arian Mars squaring the south node ruler from that 8th house? The theme of death by violence is even further emphasized when we add an astrological technicality – the 8th house has two natural rulers, which means planets which rule that house universally for everyone. They are Mars and Pluto. Tying that broad principle in with James Leininger specifically, note that Mars squares one of the south node rulers, while Pluto squares the other one, along with squaring the south node itself.
Death is a pressing issue here.
In prior lifetimes, naturally 100% of us have experienced death. But the death symbolism is utterly electrified in James’ chart – and don’t forget: the south node story specifically reveals our unresolved karma. His death itself is part of that irresolution, and not everyone’s death works that way. If for example you slip quietly away in the night at the tender age of 97, that’s not likely to be unresolved karma.
James Leininger’s nightmarish, sudden, violent exit from the flesh impacted him profoundly – so profoundly that he woke up in this present lifetime with the memory of it still haunting him, still giving him screaming nightmares . . . and fascinating him too. His soul knew that he had to heal from it, and to do that, he had to face it squarely.
The precious, healing answer to that question would lie with his north node in Virgo and the 12th house, which is ruled by his Mercury in the house of love. But that part of the story is beyond the scope of this newsletter. Here our aim is just to give our karmic theories a reality check.
Judge for yourself: is there a resonance between the story told in Soul Survivor and the story that James Leininger’s chart reveals? In this situation, we have a rare chance to compare theory and reality. Is evolutionary astrology proving that it can stand up to rigorous scrutiny?
To me, the theory looks quite robust. All I would add is that, not only does the nodal analysis resonate well with the remembered facts, it actually goes further. Over and over again, we encounter the notion of a person bound by duty to play a role that did not reflect his actual nature. That statement is purely astrological – it does not come through in any of the published material about Leininger’s prior lifetime. An astrological counselor would warn him of the dangers of repeating that pattern in his present lifetime. That’s how karma works.
If I were counseling James today, I might bring up the subject of how he feels about “the fates” having appointed him to be the “poster boy” for reincarnation.
I imagine that question would prompt the beginning of a fruitful conversation.
Again, we find ourselves in the highly unusual situation of knowing concretely “who James Leininger was” in the prior lifetime his nodal analysis reveals. There is compelling evidence that the answer is that he once took birth as James McCready Huston, Jr., who died off Iwo Jima on March 3, 1945 at the age of twenty-one. A quick Internet search reveals that Huston was born on October 22, 1923 in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. No birth time is available. Norristown is the county seat, so I used that for his birth place and set up a simple noon chart.
We always have to be cautious with such charts. Naturally, we don’t know the Ascendant, plus all the house cusps are wrong. If the person were actually born early or late in the day, the Moon’s position would be off by several degrees. The rest of the planets and points are pretty accurate, however. I wondered what kinds of connections, if any, there would be between James Leininger’s chart and what we know of James Huston’s? This is an area that hasn’t been studied much since the basic data is so hard to come by.
Here’s a biwheel with Leininger’s chart in the middle and Huston’s planets and nodes in the outer wheel:
Should we be shocked or not? James M. Huston’s lunar south node lies in Pisces only 18’ – about a quarter of a degree – away from a perfect conjunction with Leininger’s. Meanwhile, Huston’s Uranus (remember “aviation?”) echoes Leininger’s Jupiter alignment with the node.
Mars plays an obvious role in their story, and there is Huston’s Mars in a tight conjunction with Leininger’s Ascendant.
Mostly I am drawn to think about that duplicated nodal axis. What can we make of it? It certainly suggests some degree of “singing in unison” in terms of their basic karma. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise since, in a sense, they were the same person. Huston died at a tragically young age – we can easily understand that he didn’t have time to “finish his work.” So the universe set it up again.
An imperfect metaphor here is that if we “fail the seventh grade,” we “have to repeat it.” Under the circumstances, saying it that way is far from fair though. Perhaps it is better to say that the same great work simply continues in a fresh body.
In the larger scheme of things, death is only a minor interruption.
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