While Donnyboy is a work of fiction, the story was inspired by actual events and experiences that I had as a boy in Yankton, South Dakota. We moved to Yankton in 1945 because my dad – a renowned jazz musician – had accepted a job as the musical director of a large radio station that was based there. He did so reluctantly, and at my mother’s insistence. Up until that point, Dad had been with a Western outfit that moved around so much, I was never in a single school long enough to make friends. This contributed to my shyness, and made me unusually withdrawn for a ten-year-old.
What astounded me about our new town was a German POW camp that was set up on the bank of the Missouri River – right next to the radio station where my dad worked. The river was flooding at the time, and the bridge to Nebraska was in danger of collapsing. Because of the manpower shortage during the War, a number of German and Italian prisoners were shipped to places like Yankton to provide manual labor.
I spent a lot of time at the station, and got to know some of the POWs pretty well. They were not closely watched and, for the most part, forthcoming and friendly. The ones who weren’t had all been members of the SS. Not only did they menace the MPs who guarded them, they bullied the POWs who refused to identify themselves as Nazis – the ordinary Germans who had been forced to fight a war that they didn’t believe in.
While my family spent less than two years in Yankton, what I experienced there left a major impression on me. The older I got, the more convinced I became that this story – one of a lonely boy and a grieving German POW in a time and place that few people seemed to know about – would make a wonderful foundation for a novel. And that’s how Donnyboy came to be written.
Older people who have read the book say that it brings back memories of their youth with all the references to long-forgotten product names, song lyrics and movie titles. They also say it reminds them of the innocence of that particular time, and the little ironies of growing up.
Younger people tell me they love the characters, and that they can identify with their struggles. Many are intrigued to learn about the existence of POW camps on the home front during WWII – a little-known aspect of American history.
I hope you feel the same.
– Ron Phillips