World War I couldn't stop this Harlem Hellfighter's love story

Julia LeDoux
December 06, 2019 - 1:55 pm
Harlem Hellfighters

US Army

Albert S. Johnson, Sr., was a decorated sergeant in the famed Harlem Hellfighters during World War I.

He was also a devoted family man who met the love of his life, Evie Ashton, in the early 1900s, when he was 29 and she was 19.

The couple’s granddaughter, Ruddean Leinaeng, tells the story of their courtship, Johnson’s service in the Great War and how they overcame prejudice to build a life together in her book, “Coal, War and Love.”

“I started writing this 10 years ago,” she said. “It’s such a compelling story.”

Albert and Evie were the parents of Leinaeng’s father, Albert Johnson, Jr. Leinaeng said her dad would often share stories about his parents with her. Several years ago, Leinaeng’s son suggested she interview her father and videotape the session. 

The couple was from different worlds, Leinaeng said. Albert Sr. had little formal education and worked as a laborer. Evie was “pampered,” she said. “She came from a middle-class family.” 

Albert and Evie Johnson
Photo courtesy Ruddean Leinaeng

The book begins with a look at how the couple met aboard a ship that Albert Sr., worked on as a waiter and Evie was a passenger.

“She was standing at the dining room entrance wearing a green satin gown with a matching shawl loosely draped about her shoulders,” the book reads. “She was my dream come true with bronze skin, soft as down, almond-shaped eyes, pink-blushed lips, and high-boned cheeks.”

It takes readers through their whirlwind courtship and marriage. It also details  Albert Sr.’s enlistment in the Army in 1917 and subsequent service in Europe during World War I.

Albert Sr. served with the 369th Infantry Regiment during the war. Known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the all-black unit spent more time in combat than any other African American during World War I.

The unit fought heroically on the battlefield – spending six months in combat, fighting at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, suffering around 1,500 combat casualties, but receiving only 900 replacement soldiers. The nickname “hellfighters” was given to the soldiers by the Germans because of their bravery on the battlefield.  The unit was awarded a regimental Croix de Guerre by France.

“The conditions in the trenches were horrendous,” she said. “It was a constant battle to stay motivated.”

One of the ways the unit stayed motivated was by playing music. In addition to their skill on the battlefield, each member of the Harlem Hellfighters played an instrument. The unit is widely credited with bringing American jazz to Europe.

Leinaeng said writing the book has given her a greater appreciation for the hardships her grandparent’s endured and for her family’s story.

“I think everybody should revere their family history,” she said.

“Coal, War & Love” is available at

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Harlem Hellfighters: The soldiers who started jazz

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