1904  — 1981

Howard Albert Smith

Gertrude Martina Ekvall (1902-1975)

Missionary in central China whose capture by the Red Army and eventual escape sparked widespread publicity.

Howard Albert Smith was born to William Lemonl and Alice Mary White Smith on February 10, 1904, in a small hamlet in Florida where his father was working on the railroad. The family later moved back to a farm seven miles east of Washington, Pennsylvania. Howard was the eldest of three children; he had an older brother William Leman Smith and two younger sisters, Ruth and Olive. His father eked out a living as a tenant farmer and stone mason, who later overcame a mid-life bout with alcoholism.

Howard took a commuter train to attend Washington High School, from which he graduated with high grades in 1922. While working in the office at a local engineering company, he became attracted to the sister of one of his friends, who insisted that he attend the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) church with her before she would go out with him. In 1924, he declared his commitment to Christ. He also heeded the call of the Rev. H. W. Lucas to foreign missionary service.

To prepare for missionary work, Howard attended the C&MA missionary training school in Nyack, New York. Nicknamed “Diamond,” he exhibited a gift for making friends, academic excellence, and public speaking. He also grew spiritually. Howard was tall, had a lively sense of humor, and exuded vitality.

At the beginning of his senior year, he met Gertrude Martina Ekvall (1902-1975), who had just graduated from Wheaton College and had come to Nyack for the required year of missionary training before going out to China as a missionary with the C&MA. “Gert” had been born of missionary parents in China and had spent much of her youth in Anhui. At Wheaton she had excelled as a tennis player, played on the women’s pickup softball team, had participated in a literary society, sung in the glee club, and served in the YWCA.

Howard and Gertrude became engaged during the academic year of 1927-1928, and were married on September 7, 1929 in St. Albans Bay, Minnesota. They spent their honeymoon on a leisurely trip the East Coast, after which Howard spent thirteen months as an intern at the Goodwill Rescue Mission in Newark, New York. Gertrude had a job at Western Electric Company. In 1930 she became ill, and in early February, 1931, the C&MA physician recommended that she not leave the country. Further examinations were more positive, however, and was eventually cleared for missionary service.

The two sailed from Vancouver, British Columbia in April, 1931, arriving Shanghai at the end of the month. They arrived in Hankou by steamer on May 4th.

Preparing for field assignment 1931-1933

The Smiths moved into a multi-story brick home on the C&MA compound with Gert’s parents, Martin and Emma Ekvall, in Wuchang, rather than at the C&MA language school in Wuhu. Daily lessons with an elderly Chinese scholar were supplemented by hours of private study each day. Howard worked hard to meet the goal of becoming able to preach in Mandarin within one year, while Gert sought to recover the language she had learned as a child in China. The focus was on listening and speaking. They never gained more than cursory skill in reading and none in writing. They played games at night and on weekends, and took occasional excursions to see nearby sites, but mostly stuck to language study until the following July, when they and the Ekvalls joined other expatriates at the summer retreat in Kuling.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang, along with other government officials, also spent the summers there to avoid the heat in Nanjing. The Chiangs attended the chapel and Mme. Chiang often spoke with missionaries afterwards.

In December, 1931, the both passed their oral and written exams.

The Yangzi River flooded terribly in 1931, drowning thousands and leaving millions homeless. The missionaries visited the refugee camps across the road from the mission compound, feeding as many people as possible. Sick people were seen in the mission dispensary. Along with physical help, they and their Chinese co-workers preached the gospel, taught Bible classes, and distributed tracts. More refugees came when the river flooded again in 1932. Emma Ekvall was awarded a medal by the Chinese government for her ministry to these people, and for her work in establishing a school for blind children. Deeply moved by these disasters, Howard wrote a fervent plea for help and prayer to supporters at home.

Their first child, Raymond Henry Smith, was born at Kuling August 25, 1932. The family returned to Wuchang in late September. A few weeks later, Howard left for several months of missionary internship at Lungtan, Sichuan, which he reached after weeks of travel by river and overland trekking. Howard sometimes helped the men to pull the boat through rapids or upstream. In Lungtan, served with the Rev. Paul Bartel (1904-2001), whom he accompanied on itineration while he also continued language study. The area was contested by government troops, ordinary bandits, and Communist bandit groups. The constant threat of fighting was “distracting” to Howard as he tried to learn the language.

Field assignment

After 9 ½ months apart, the Smiths were re-united in Wuchang briefly before they departed on September 24, 1933, for the C&MA missions station at Pengshui, Sichuan, a week’s journey up the river. The Rev. and Mrs. William Carlaw Chapman had opened this station in the fall of 1931, and had been encouraged by the reception they encountered: “From the first day the people have been utterly friendly and crowds have packed the chapel daily,” they wrote. Continuous stress from the threat of bandits affected Agnes Chapman’s health, however, so they went to Songtao for a while for her to recover (which she did. They returned to Pengshui in 1939.). Miss Helen Clark was sent to “man” the station until the Smiths arrived.

The area was infested by bandits, however, and travel up the rapids was slow and dangerous. Once, the rope by which the boat was being pulled snapped, and the boatmen recovered the craft only with difficulty. They had visited warlord General Li Chiang, who was in charge of that province and who wrote a letter signed by him, and Howard had little Ray’s photo taken with the general. On two occasions, when they were stopped by soldiers, he pulled out the letter and the photo. The soldiers, believing he was a friend of the general, allowed them to pass.

Helen Clark greeted them when they finally arrived. Seven people had become Christians in the previous two years. Howard worked with those who attended the chapel and also engaged in itinerant evangelism. Gert found the adjustment to a small town (now more than 3,000 inhabitants), few conveniences, and the company of only one other white woman difficult. She experienced intense loneliness at times. One diary entry records, “So lonesome that I can hardly stand living here.” Her elementary grasp of Chinese greatly hindered her ministry among women. She did, however, enjoy entertaining visiting missionaries and local dignitaries.

Bandit activity intensified in the following months, making the strain of living there even harder to take. In December, Communist soldiers captured a nearby city, so the Smiths packed their belongings and prepared to flee at a moment’s notice. Things settled down for five months when the government soldiers drove the “’Reds” (as they were called) away.

Capture by Communist soldiers

Communist forces belonging to the Third Route Army (later called the 2nd Force Army) under the command of General Ho Lung had been active in the region. Avoiding pitched battles with government troops, they would swoop down on a town, capture lead gentry and officials, take plunder, and then leave. Demands for ransom would then be sent back to the town. If not ransom was paid, the prisoners would be executed.

The Smiths knew that Red soldiers might arrive at any time, and were generally prepared to flee at a moment’s notice, but communications were slow and the Reds moved fast, so advance warning was not always possible. On the morning of May 8th they heard shooting in the streets of the city. Soon the Reds were in the mission compound, and they were all captured. Soldiers began looting their house, though the Smiths were treated courteously. It seemed that they pitied little Ray, who was a sick and afraid and cried constantly.

Howard asked to meet General Ho Lung, who acceded to Howard’s request that his wife and baby be allowed to go free, on the condition that she take a note demanding ransom and medicines, and also buy some books for the general in Shanghai. Ho arranged a boat for her—for which Howard was required to pay—and she was safely escorted down the Wu River to Fuzhou, thence to Chongqing and, finally, down the Yangtze by U.S. gunboat to Hankou to deliver the ransom note to C&MA leaders.

As Howard was marched through town in the long lines of soldiers, he saw many Christians weeping. A private note included in the ransom note said, “This leaves me doing the Lord’s work and giving the best testimony I’ve been able to give since coming here. Praise the dear Lord for the privilege.” He did whisper to Gert that he would try to escape as soon as he could.

Howard sent a note the next day to Miss Clark, who had returned to the mission compound, saying, “The cook [whom he had requested be sent to him with some milk] had arrived and that there was no need for undue anxiety on his account, that he was well treated, was eating with the general and his officers and sharing a room with another captive of prominence from Pengshui whom he knew.”

Though many Chinese captives were executed if no ransom was forthcoming or if they could not keep up with the pace of the march, Howard, who was 30 and in great physical shape because of constant itinerating in the countryside, could walk the demanding distances between rests. Once, passing through a town where he had previously preached, he was recognized by an old man, a Christian, who told him that Gertrude had arrived safely in Wuchang.

Obviously considered the most valuable prisoner, Howard was closely guarded at all times. At night, he slept in a hut with several soldiers and an officer, sometimes a ranking officer. He was never poorly treated, and occasionally dined with the general, whose dialect he spoke and who liked to play Chinese chess with him. Howard tried hard never to win! He asked for a Bible, but was only able to obtain a small copy of <i>Broken Bread for Daily Use</i>, which contained a verse for the day followed by a commentary by Evan H. Hopkins. One day, he opened at random to the verse, “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you…but rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakes of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:12-13). He felt as if God himself was speaking to him.

On the fortieth day of his captivity he wrote to his wife:

“Don’t worry, darling. The Lord knows the end of this matter from the beginning and will have His way worked out in it all regardless of men, governments and the devil himself, and you and I are going to be on the winning side in the end because we are choosing His will and plans and we won’t complain if it seems a bit hard now. It’s better father on, honey. There are a lot of times when I don’t feel very confident about getting out of this affair in exactly the way I might want, but I can still feel “the touch of His hand on mine” and I often march along a rough mountain road singing, Ever near to bless and cheer, in the darkest hour. When I’m tempted I can feel His power.”

A couple of weeks later, when he was fleeing, the wrote,

“Hiding in the Rock, Darling: Yang Si Pu and I have fled in the night trusting in God alone for deliverance. Have hidden in the bushes on a cliff. Our God is able to deliver but should it Please Him that we should not be delivered in the way we wish, Honey, just remember that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. I am yours and Christ’s till the daylight sends the shadows, all of them flee away. Love, Howard.”

When Gertrude reached safety, news of Howard’s capture spread around the United States and was carried in a number of newspapers. The American government advised against the payment of ransom, lest others be captured in order to gain funds, and because ransom payments were often followed by demands for more money, or even by execution of the prisoner. China Kai-shek was told that this was the third member of the Ekvall family to be captured by the Communists; he expressed great concern and commanded the Nationalist general, Liu Hsiang, in, charge of the region to do all he could to procure Howard’s release. General Liu expressed his desire to help, but confessed that the government had tried to suppress He Lung a long time without success, and that military efforts would probably not work. Liu denied that the Pengshui magistrate and garrison had been derelict in their duty, despite clear evidence to the contrary, but he did have the magistrate removed.

Escape from capture

Always looking for a chance to escape, and trying to notice where he was in relation to where he had been, Howard the cook boy finally took advantage of a sleeping guard’s inattention to run out of the hut in which they had been staying and into the surrounding hills in a remote area of Guizhou. They rested in hiding during the days and traversed mountain paths at night. After crossing the Wu river, which was guarded at another spot downstream by Reds, they travelled during the daylight, causing Howard to suffer from mild heatstroke. They had little to eat for several days.

Exhausted and sick, they were welcomed into a farmer’s house where Howard fell asleep, only to be awakened in the middle of the night by men shouting, “Kill! Kill!” These were Spirit Soldiers, demon-possessed people who hated the government and all foreigners, and who had obviously spotted them entering the house. Howard barely escaped with his life, though the cook boy was taken. The boy survived, but Howard, his feet cut and bleeding, fled into the night.

Still sick and with bleeding feet, Howard continued his journey, once sleeping in the back of a small shrine to avoid detection. One day he came to a fork in the path, and took the one going left. Then he heard a man standing at the fork calling to him, “Where are you going.” Howard told him, and the man replied, “That’s not the right way. You need to take the other path,” which he did. Later he thought that he had been saved from heading into the wilderness in weakened condition by an angel.

One night, chilled by the rain and exhausted, he sought refuge in a house, only to discover that he had stumbled onto another spirit soldier’s home. He tried to flee, was captured, and then finally got away by telling that he was a Russian advance spy for the Reds and that they should let him proceed with his mission. After more adventures, he was finally “captured” by a group of irregular soldiers, who discussed turning him back over to the Reds for money. He persuaded them to send him to the Nationalists, however. The same old man who had helped him before showed up again and paid his expenses to hire a boat to Pengshui, where Miss Clark had waited for him faithfully.

After a few days’ rest, he arrived safely in Hankou on July 21, twenty-one days after his escape. General Liu claimed that he had achieved the rescue by sending in some of his special agents. Howard and Gert were happily re-united in Kikungshan in Hupeh where the Ekvalls owned a cottage on July 31st.

Completing their first missionary term

The C&MA offered to allow the Smiths to return to the United States early, but they decided they should finish out their normal seven-year assignment. After a summer in Kikung, they were assigned to Nanling, Anhui, in the fall of 1934, a settled C&MA station thought to be clear of Red forces. They joined a team of S&MA missionaries serving a church, three street chapels, three primary schools in the city proper, and three more outstations in the surrounding countryside, where there were about 200,000 people.

On December 8th, however, having heard that Communists were in the area, they boarded a little boat and travelled by river and then a train to the C&MA compound at Wuhu, bringing news of the Reds’ approach. The day they left China Inland Mission missionaries John and Betty Stam were beheaded by Communist soldiers in Anwhei south of the Yangtze, who had demanded a ransom but didn’t wait for a response. Before being chased away by Nationalists troops, Communists also killed Chinese Christians in several other towns they had overrun, so their murderous rage was not solely directed against foreigners, but at followers of Christ.

To avoid another capture, the Smiths were housed in the 88-bed American Methodist hospital in Wuhu (now the Yijishan Hospital). Later, Howard was appointed administrative assistant for the director, Dr. Robert Brown. Their second child, Anne Elizabeth, was born February 4, 1935. A birthday party was held for Gertrude when she turned thirty-three on March 17.

In the summer of 1935, the C&MA leaders decided that Anhui was safe again, and re-assigned the Smiths to Nanling, where they lived for the remainder of that year, all of 1936, and through the spring of 1937. They helped with the Comey Memorial Boarding School for women, where female teachers, wives of Chinese workers, and Bible women were trained. They also worked with the “Happy Childhood School,” which educated children of Chinese Christian workers.

Living at the location of the C&MA headquarters, Howard came into contact with outstanding Chinese Christian pastors and evangelists, of whom he spoke very highly. Among those he admired were Sha E (1889-1975, Leland Wang (1898-1975), C.K. Lee and Marcus Cheng of the Alliance, and Hu Shou-jen, who worked in Wuhu. He also wrote in praise of faithful Chinese colporteurs, such as “Ts’en, Lee, and Chieng.”

Over the years, he developed near-professional skill in photography. Subjects included Chinese Christian workers, the many faces of China’s millions, and the varied scenery which he saw on his travels. “He did his own developing and printing and carefully stored and identified his negatives in individual envelopes which…kept them in near-pristine condition” for decades. On many occasions he took pictures of Chinese whom he encountered and sent them to him. Several thank-you notes survive. One reads,

“In the evening a foreigner came up, his eyes sparkling with friendship and delight. One would like to talk with him. He broke the ice and proved so sociable and interesting. He took pictures for us. He even helped us, carrying our baby ashore and accompanying mother and children to the inn. It was a fortune to meet him. It was a crime not to follow out the intention to thank him. Now he has sent us pictures of his own making. We expected one or two small prints, and he sent us elaborate and colorful regular photos! Mr. Smith we should not thank you in the ordinary manner. How shall we thank you? The fulfillment of your promise reminds is of your Chinese name, a man living close to Sincerity. You are actually worthy of gratitude… Please give our regards to Madame Smith whom we can only imagine to be seeing and knowing to be the happy wife of a happy man.”

They were scheduled to return home on furlough in December, 1937, but the C&MA leadership decided they should leave in June of that year because of their previous experience of capture. They sailed for home in September, 1937, and spent the next three years in the continental United States, living in southern California, though Howard travelled widely and spoke about missions in China for the Alliance. In 1939, after the normal one-year of furlough had elapsed, he accepted a position with the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) supplementing his C&MA duties.

In September 1940, they were sent out, assigned to return to Wuhu, which was garrisoned by Japanese troops at the time. While en route, however, the U.S. State Department wired all American carriers on the high seas that they could no longer guarantee the safety of Americans in China outside of Shanghai, which was still open, so the Smiths disembarked in Honolulu to await further instructions. After a year of waiting, Howard resigned from the mission board and joined the Congregational Board of Missions of Hawaii, taking a position as pastor for the Koloa Union Church on Kauai.

Howard ministered to a mixed congregation for five years (1941-1946). He also gave hundreds of sermons on the radio. He held to a traditional, conservative theology that focused on know and serving God through faith in Jesus Christ, who alone can grant peace and happiness now and eternal life in the world to come. At the same time, he was what he called a “Practical Christian” who believed that faith in God can be lived out in every circumstance of life as we rely on Christ in faith. He insisted that Jesus’ statement, “You must be born again” is still true. He urged people to forsake the love of this world and seek to know God through faith in the saving work of Christ.

Howard died in West Palm Beach, Florida in January, 1981.


  • Ray Smith, The China Experience: Martin Ekvalls and Howard Smith 1892-2013. Privately published, 2013.

About the Author

G. Wright Doyle

Director, Global China Center; English Editor, Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity, Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.