It sounds totally beyond belief. But read the tantalising evidence from this boy's family and you may start to wonder...
The agonised screams pierced the air. 'Plane on fire! Airplane crash.' In the dark, a two-year-old boy was just visible, writhing on his bed in the grip of horror. 'He was lying there on his back, kicking and clawing at the covers like he was trying to kick his way out of a coffin,' remembers the boy's father.
'I thought, this looks like The Exorcist. I half expected his head to spin around like that little girl in the movie. But then I heard what James was saying.'
Over and over again, the tiny child screamed: 'Plane on fire! Little man can't get out.'
Vivid recollections: James Leininger, pictured aged four had nightmares about being a WWII pilot who died after his plane crashed into the ocean
For his shocked parents, these nightly scenes were traumatic.
For experts, they were baffling.
As the nightmares became more terrifying, the child started screaming the name of the 'little man' who couldn't get out of the plane. It was James - like his own name. He also talked in his dreams of 'Jack Larsen', 'Natoma' and 'Corsair'.
James Leininger's father, Bruce, was flummoxed. In a desperate attempt to find an answer to his son's troubled nights, he embarked on an obsessive three-year research project, armed only with the outbursts and names his son had been shouting in his disturbed sleep.
What he discovered astonished and perplexed him, and drove him to an extraordinary conclusion.
A lifelong Christian, it was not the answer he had sought for his son's behaviour. But he came to believe James was the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot; a man who had been shot down in his plane and struggled to escape as it caught fire; a hero.
Hero: Fighter pilot James Huston, who died in 1945 after his plane took a direct hit and plunged into the water
The idea seems so preposterous as to be unbelievable. Yet in their new book, Soul Survivor: The Reincarnation of a World War II Fighter Pilot Bruce and his wife, Andrea, lay out some compelling evidence.
It all began on May 1, 2000. James, just three weeks past his second birthday, was a happy, playful toddler living in an idyllic home in southern Louisiana. That night, his mother was woken by his screams. She held him in her arms as he thrashed around.
At a toy shop, they admired some model planes. 'Look,' said Andrea. 'There's a bomb on the bottom.'
'That's not a bomb, Mummy,' he replied. 'That's a drop tank.' Just a toddler, he was talking like a military historian. How had he known about the gas tank used by aircraft to extend their range?
As the nightmares continued, she asked him: 'Who is the little man?'
'Me,' he answered. His father asked: 'What happened to your plane?'
James replied: 'It crashed on fire.'
'Why did your plane crash?'
'It got shot,' he said.
'Who shot your plane?'
James made a disgusted face. 'The Japanese!' he said, with indignation.
He said he knew it was the Japanese, because of 'the big red sun'. Was he describing the Japanese symbol of the rising sun, painted on their warplanes, called 'meatballs' by American pilots?
Tentatively, Andrea began to suggest reincarnation; perhaps James had lived a past life? Bruce reacted angrily. There must be a rational explanation for all this.
He questioned his son further. 'Do you remember what kind of plane the little man flew?'
'A Corsair,' replied the two-year-old without hesitation - repeating the word he shouted in his dreams.
Bruce knew this was a World War II fighter plane.
'Do you remember where your airplane took off from?' he asked.
'A boat,' said James. How did he know that these planes were launched from aircraft carriers? He asked the name of the boat.
His son replied with certainty: 'The Natoma.'
After James was in bed, Bruce researched what he had heard. A naturally sceptical man, he was amazed to find the Natoma Bay was a World War II aircraft carrier.
James even began to don an imaginary pilot's headset when his mother strapped him into his car seat. And when Bruce ordered a book for his father's Christmas present - The Battle Of Iwo Jima - James pointed to the picture and said: 'Daddy, that's when my plane was shot down.'
Bruce, who works in the oil industry, rushed into his office, where he had a dictionary of American naval fighting ships. Natoma Bay had supported the U.S. Marines' invasion of Iwo Jima in 1945.
Bruce was mystified - what was coming out of the mouth of his two-year- old? Next, the little boy named his nightmare alter-ego's best friend. He was Jack Larsen.
'He was a pilot, too,' he said. Bruce decided that he had to find Jack Larsen to prove his point to his wife - Larsen would tell him that James had invented the whole thing, and there was no such thing as reincarnation.
He decided to go to a reunion of veterans of Natoma Bay, pretending he was writing a book.
Andrea, meanwhile, was convinced James had been reincarnated. She contacted Carol Bowman, the author of a book on reincarnation called Children's Past Lives. Bowman confirmed Andrea's views.
'The common threads were there with James,' she said. 'The age the nightmares began, the remembered death. These are all consistent with children experiencing past lives.'
She advised Andrea to tell James that he was safe, and that his bad experiences were over now. Apart from his night terrors, he was an ordinary child living an ordinary life, turning three in April 2001.
He liked to play war games with his GI Joe action figures, Billy, Walter and Leon. He also liked to draw - battle scenes, with bullets, bombs and planes. He drew Wildcats and Corsairs, and named the Japanese planes Zekes or Bettys.
Pointing to one plane, he said: 'That's a Corsair. They used to get flat tyres all the time. And they always wanted to turn left when they took off.'
He would play a game of pilots, constructing a make-shift cockpit out of a toy phone and old car seat. He would call: 'Roger. Zero at six o'clock. Hit him!', then throw himself on the floor, saying: 'My plane was hit, I'm parachuting.' At an airshow, he told everyone: 'I want to be an F18 Super Hornet pilot.'
In the meantime, Bruce finally managed to find Jack Larsen - and uncovered an awful secret. It turned out Larsen's friend James Huston Jnr died when his plane was shot in the engine and caught fire, exactly as described by two-year-old James.
He sifted through a thousand combat mission reports to find where Huston had been killed.
Larsen told Bruce: 'James was a real good man. It was a very dangerous place. But James volunteered to go.'
He also said that it was aboard the Natoma that the first crude napalm bombs had been improvised, mixing napalm powder with petrol. 'It looked like we were making jelly,' he said.
His account brought home the full horror of battle - the flimsy planes flying to attack the Japanese. Huston was flying 'tail-end Charlie' - the last plane in - so Larsen had not seen him go down.
The veterans' association reported that James Huston's father had even attended their reunions. But the old man died in 1973, never learning any specifics of his son's death.
Next, little James unnerved his father by telling him: 'I knew you would be a good daddy, that's why I picked you.'
'Where did you find us?' asked a shaken Bruce.
'In Hawaii, at the pink hotel, on the beach,' he replied. Eerily, he described his parents' fifth wedding anniversary - five weeks before Andrea got pregnant - saying it was when he 'chose' them to bring him back into the world.
Something new emerged every day. On a map, he pointed out the exact location where James's plane went down. Asked why he called his action figures Billy, Leon and Walter, he replied: 'Because that's who met me when I got to heaven.'
Reunited? James Huston's sister Anne met James Leininger and believes he is a reincarnation of her brother
Sure enough, on the list of the Natoma dead, alongside James Huston, were Billie Peeler, Leon Conner and Walter Devlin. Uncannily, photos of the men showed their hair colour matched those of their GI Joe dolls.
Finally, Bruce and Andrea located James Huston's last surviving relative - his 84-year-old sister, Anne.
She told them: 'Mom and Dad never talked about Jimmy's death, but Dad went to several reunions to see if he could get any details. He never could.'
And so they were able to tell her where her brother died. After so many years, they were even able to send her a picture of the harbour.
She responded: 'It is so much more personal than anything I have. The picture of the bay is beautiful and so peaceful. A lovely resting place.'
In return, she sent Bruce and Andrea a picture of James with his squadron - a cluster of smiling young men. In the background was a Corsair - confirming that little James had been right about the plane Huston flew.
Bruce says: 'My purpose for researching what was happening to my son was to establish that this was all a coincidence. But I was getting closer and closer to something dangerous. It was like putting my hand in a fire.'
Not long after, the family had a phone call from a veteran who had seen Huston's plane being hit. He kept his knowledge to himself for more than 50 years. He described seeing the aftermath of Huston's crash on the sea below.
'He took a direct hit on the nose. All I could see were pieces falling into the bay. We pulled out of the dive and headed for open sea. I saw the place where the fighter had hit. The rings were still expanding near a huge rock at the harbour entrance.'
Huston's plane was hit in the engine and the front exploded in a ball of flames - exactly like James's account. It explained why he always knocked the propeller off his toy planes.
Another veteran had been even closer. John Richardson explained: 'The Japs began firing at us. We formed up for the attack. A plane startled me. It was a fighter. He was firing his machine guns, strafing what was below. We were no more than 30 yards apart when the pilot deliberately turned his head and looked at me.
'I caught his eye and we connected with each other. No sooner had we connected than his plane was hit in the engine by what seemed to be a fairly large shell. There was an instantaneous flash of flames that engulfed the plane. It almost immediately disappeared below me.'
Richardson began to sob, saying: 'I have lived with that pilot's face as his eyes fixed on me every day since it happened. But I never knew who he was. I was the last guy who saw him alive. I was the last person he saw before he was killed. His face has haunted me.'
The family showed him a photograph of James Huston.
He said: 'I recognise his face. I could never forget it. As we retired from the harbour, I could see where Huston went in. He hit near a large rock right near the opening.'
Encouraged by the Leiningers, Richardson told Anne what he had seen - half a decade after her brother was lost without trace.
For his part, Bruce has found peace after his exhaustive search for answers. He says: 'God gives us a spirit. It lives for ever. James Huston's spirit had come back to us. Why? I'll never know. There are things that are unexplainable and unknowable.'
Meeting Huston's veteran brothers in arms, little James was disappointed, saying: 'I'm sad that everyone is so old.' Did he truly remember them as dashing young pilots?
Finally, the Leiningers gingerly broke the explosive news of the real reason behind their questions to Anne. They mapped out the story, the terrible nightmares, the vivid descriptions of battle, naming the ship and the pilots.
She told them: 'Jimmy was due home in March 1945 and I was cleaning, anticipating his arrival. I sensed that he was in the room with me. A couple of days later I got the news that Jimmy had gone missing. I was devastated.
'When my father told me the date Jimmy was lost, I realised it was the day I felt his presence. We never knew what happened to him. I want you to know that I believe the story.'
The Leiningers eventually went to drop a bouquet of flowers at Huston's ocean grave, making the long voyage to Japan.
James's nightmares continued until he was eight, but they were gentler than his early terrors - he woke sobbing softly. Whatever the truth behind the young boy's extraordinary dreams, James Huston now seems able to rest in peace.