A Purpose-Filled Life: Love, Service and Music

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Photo: Fred Kamaka
Fred Kamaka, Sr., continued to work at the iconic Kamaka ʻUkulele Factory well into his 90s. – Photos: The Fred Kamaka ʻOhana

Honoring Fred Kamaka, Sr., Beloved Father, War Hero, and Famed ʻUkulele Maker

Frederick “Fred” Ku Kamaka, Sr.
Sept. 16, 1924 – July 23, 2023

By The Fred Kamaka ʻOhana

Frederick “Fred” Ku Kamaka, Sr., was born on Sept. 16, 1924, in Honolulu. There to welcome him was his father, renowned ʻukulele maker Samuel Kaialiʻiliʻi Kamaka, Sr., of Waiheʻe, Maui, and his mother, Liholiho Elementary School teacher May Akeo of Kāʻanapali, Maui. Also there to welcome him was older brother, and life-long best friend, Sam Jr.

Fred lived the first years of his life in Kaimukī before the family moved to Kāneʻohe in 1929. Their home was always a gathering place for musicians and hula dancers, as his mother was a kumu hula and his aunts were all musicians.

Fred’s fondest memories growing up included spending time with his older brother and cousins. They would swim in Waikīkī and Kāneʻohe streams, fish off Waiʻalae and Waiʻanae, play sports, ride bikes down Wilhelmina Rise, and ride horses through the Kāneʻohe countryside.

Hard work and the value of family was instilled in Fred from a young age. He started working in his father’s ʻukulele factory on South King St. when he was 5 years old, cleaning up sawdust. He was rewarded with ice cream, which remained one of his favorite foods – along with apricot pie.

Fred attended St Louis School and then the Kamehameha Schools where he became a proud member of the class of 1944. Reunions with his classmates were full of laughter and singing, and Fred’s rich tenor was an important addition.

Photo: Fred and Elisabeth Kamaka
Fred and Elisabeth Kamaka enjoy a spin on the dance floor.

His time on the Kapālama campus would set the stage for his military career. Fred was in the JROTC and witnessed the bombing of Pearl Harbor from the campus. This was followed by many nights of guard duty, protecting the water tanks at the top of the hill.

After graduation, Fred joined the merchant marines. Soon after, he and his brother, Sam, were drafted on the same day to serve in WWII. Fred worked as a military policeman at Ft. DeRussy and on Hawaiʻi Island. In 2021, the brothers proudly became recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal award to Chinese American WWII veterans.

When the war ended, the brothers went to Washington State University on the GI Bill. The two roomed together and were active entertainers through the Hawaiʻi Club, which they founded.

Upon graduation, Fred was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and found himself fighting in the Korean War. He was awarded a Silver Star for his heroism, leading troops in the fierce, bloody Second Battle of Pork Chop Hill. He also served as an advisor in Vietnam, before finally returning home to serve at Ft. DeRussy. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in 1972. Although proud of his service to his country, few people knew about his military contributions and sacrifice.

Photo: Fred Kamaka, Sr. and ʻohana
Fred Kamaka, Sr., (seated, center) surrounded by his ʻohana.

In 1972, Fred joined Sam at the Kamaka ʻUkulele Factory. Sam focused on the manufacturing side and Fred on the business side. Together, through hard work and commitment, the company rose to prominence as the world’s premiere ʻukulele maker. Fred continued to work at the shop into his 90s, where he loved to lead tours, meet people from around the world and share the history of the company. The COVID-19 pandemic would mark the end of his popular tours.

“Love knows no boundaries,” applies to the story of Fred and Elisabeth Theelen. The two grew up on opposite sides of the world. Elisabeth was from a small farming village in Germany; Fred was from Hawaiʻi. As fate would have it, the two met in the middle, at a lūʻau in New Jersey. At the time, Fred was stationed at Fort Dix and Elisabeth was a flight attendant for Pan American Airlines stationed in New York City. The two married in August 1959.

Fred’s military career took his young family to Puerto Rico, North Carolina, Germany, and finally back home to Hawaiʻi. They raised three children – Martina, Heidi, and Fred Jr. – on the family property in Kāneʻohe. He always admired and was grateful for Elisabeth’s willingness to adapt and move. “We lived in such a different way,” he said, compared to her German upbringing.

Frederick Ku Kamaka, Sr., passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by family on July 23, 2023. He was 98 years old. He was preceded in death by his beloved wife. He is survived by three children, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. If asked, he would say his proudest achievement was his family. His family would say they were most proud of who he was, and how much he humbly accomplished in his life.