|The pilot, Vandy Van der Leun, and the farmer’s daughter, Naomi Brothers, fiancees in the winter before the 1946 crash|
A farmer’s fate…
A tale told late
Hood County News – January 9, 2001
By CHRIS EVANS
Stock farmer Lawrence Brothers watched from the seat of his Farmall Model C tractor as the little plane rose, then fell from the sky. It was April 27, 1946. Brothers, then in his mid-50s, was cutting oats on his farm outside Cresson.
He had watched for several minutes as the World War II era trainer did several loops and dives. He had chuckled when its occupants lobbed a tomato at his barn, missing. He was still smiling as he watched the plane soar skyward and listened to the satisfying drone of his almost new tractor.
Then, sometime around 11 on an otherwise halcyon spring morning, it happened. The plane, a modified Army BT-13, went straight up and, after its engine was cut, started its freefall in a familiar fashion. But as it did, the engine was slow in reigniting.
“When it did start, it torqued the plane right down into the ground at an angle, like this,” said an eyewitness who was 13 at the time. The plane, the eyewitness said, was scattered over quite a large area. “And there was fuel everywhere, but no fire,” he said. “I don’t know how.”
Lawrence Brothers dismounted the tractor and ran perhaps 1,000 yards, through a piece of his own farm. He wedged his way through a barbed-wire fence and into a large area of sloping range on what is today Mustang Creek Ranch.
What he found where the plane had smashed into and was sundered over the ground was “pretty gruesome, I guess you’d say,” as the eyewitness put it.
In the pilot’s seat was Cornell F. “Vandy” Van der Leun, 22, of Cincinnati, a recently discharged Army Air Force B-29 and P-80 pilot. Van der Leun, conscious and moaning, would be dead before the ambulance carrying him left the property.
In the back seat of the gnarled and crumpled cockpit, not making a sound, was Vandy Ven der Leun’s fiancee, Lawrence Brothers’ adopted daughter and only child, Naomi, 20, one semester away from graduating from Baylor.
“Pilot Is Killed, Baylor Co-Ed Hurt as Plane Crashes Near Cresson,” read the front-page headline in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which wrongly reported that the plane had gone down on the ranch of “Miss Brothers’ parents.”
“The girl’s father, who witnessed the crash, said the couple had just flown low over him and had pulled the plane up into a steep climbing turn when it stalled and crashed in a pasture,” the paper said.
“Miss Brothers was brought to Cook Memorial Hospital where attendants said she suffered a brain concussion, back fracture and internal injuries,” the paper reported.
Van der Leun, who had until recently been stationed at Fort Worth Army Air Field, had rented the converted BT-13 at the Weatherford Airport.
Other facts surfaced in the days after the mishap: Lawrence Brothers was covered in blood when he arrived at the hospital with his daughter. Miss Naomi Brothers, an aspiring journalist, had plane reservations to fly to Boulder, Colo., for summer journalism classes. She had completed a pre-flight aeronautics course at Baylor and planned to get her own pilot’s license. Those plans, as well as her planned marriage to Vandy Van der Leun, would never materialize.
For two days she lay unconscious but not comatose in Cook Hospital, where she would live in a ribbed upper-body contraption for four months before going home to Cresson and living in the contraption for another four months.
Two different doctors told her parents, Lawrence and Myldred Brothers, that while their tall, beautiful daughter likely would regain her ability to walk upright and function mentally, she would not be able to bear children.
That was, the couple agreed, a small price to pay, mainly because of the way they had gotten Naomi, their only child, in the first place. And that was by adopting the little girl, who was actually Myldred Brothers’ first cousin, after the child’s mother had died in childbirth. The baby weighed less than three pounds and was, according to some reports, given up for dead.
Time passed. “Miss Naomi” found a new beau, a skinny preacher at the Cresson Baptist Church that some people didn’t like, the same guy who’d been there to visit when she came to at Cook Memorial Hospital.
Naomi and the preacher were wed in the Cresson Baptist Church, moved away and, about a year later, pronounced themselves with child in West Texas. They ended up replenishing the earth with not one, but three children, children who rarely heard mention of the plane crash growing up and, when they did, didn’t get much in the way of details.
In summer and during holidays when the three children of Naomi and preacher would go with their parents to Cresson and the old rock house Lawrence Brothers had built for his wife and adopted daughter, they would hear at times mention of Vandy Van der Leun and a long-ago plane crash “down at the Allen Place on Grandaddy’s farm” but gave little thought to it or its significance.
In time, the principals began to pass on. Myldred Brothers, a colorful character and community nurse, died in the late 1970s. Lawrence Brothers, a keen businessman as well as farmer, met an early death due to smoking all his life, at age 97 in the middle 1980s.
In 1990, Naomi, the farmer’s daughter, died after a long battle with multiple sclerosis thought to have been related to scar tissue incurred in the crash of the BT-13. Four years later, the preacher was found dead from an atherosclerotic heart malfunction in his home in Fort Worth.
The three children who weren’t supposed to be possible inherited Lawrence Brothers little farm outside Cresson and the old rock house in town, which needs work but still stands.
And about two years ago, the eldest of the three was stopped on a country road by a motorist going the opposite direction.
“Was Naomi your mother?” the man asked after I rolled down the window.
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
“My name is Kenneth Teich, and I saw that plane crash,” he said.
Teich, the eyewitness quoted earlier in this story, was with a friend, Brian Lee Smith, riding bikes when they stopped to watch the BT-13 cavort above in 1946. “Brian Lee was 10, we both knew a lot about airplanes and we got off our bikes to watch,” Teich said. “I didn’t know Vandy but he’d been around Cresson quite a bit and was well-liked by people who’d met him. I didn’t know that was him in the plane and I had no idea that was Naomi in back. But I knew Naomi. Everybody in Cresson knew Naomi.”
And a few days after meeting Naomi’s eldest child on the road, more than half a century after the crash, Teich took him to the place the plane went down.
Sure enough, the site yielded more than a little evidence — a plastic window, some twisted pieces of metal, a pulley.
The evidence today is in a bag stashed away in the garage by the rock house, perhaps never to be reopened and reexamined by the oldest child, who lives in the old rock house.
He will keep the fragments of the plane, though, to remind him of what might and — might not — have been.