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She beat arthritis, built war machines

November 15, 1998|By KIMBERLY YAKOWSKI

Watching astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn on television after his recent voyage on the space shuttle filled Marjorie A. Griffith with pride.

She remembers meeting the explorer more than 30 years ago after he became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Glenn toured the Martin-Marietta plant in Baltimore where Griffith worked for 27 years before retiring.

"He's a compassionate and dedicated man. You could just go up to him and give him a hug," said Griffith, 85.

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As a machinist, welder and electrician for the company, Griffith, of Boonsboro, helped build the crafts that took Glenn and other astronauts into space. Through the years she also worked to build parts of airplanes, ships and missiles used by the government during World War II. She did all of this while battling crippling rheumatoid arthritis and raising three children alone.

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Griffith said meeting the space legend was a high point of her career, which started in 1942 when the call came for females to take work traditionally held by men.

"I was 28 years old and had three kids to take care of, so I went where I could make the most money," she said. Griffith's husband had joined the Merchant Marines.

Packing up her children and her things, Griffith moved from Sharpsburg to the Fairfield shipyard in Baltimore, where she earned $75 a week as a defense worker. After some on-the-job training, she began as a welder, constructing portions of the Liberty and Victory ships used by the U.S. Navy, she said.

"It was hard work. But I was used to hard work," she said.

She explained that she was raised on a farm.

"I enjoyed it. A lot of women were doing it. We worked as hard as any man," she said.

Griffith continued to weld ship bulkheads and care for her children until she contracted lead poisoning.

"It was a mild case and I got it treated, but I had to leave that department," she said.

Still a skilled and valuable employee, Griffith was moved to the dry dock area, where she worked as a security guard. It was there that warships damaged by fighting were repaired.

With World War II raging on, it was Griffith's job to watch for any signs of sabatoge, she said.

"We were taught what to look for and report it to the higher-ups," she said.

Replaced by returning soldiers, she moved on to take a position wiring instrument panels for ships and eventually became a certified electrician.

"It was all zero defect - everything had to be perfect. It was a lot of pressure but we knew the work and had confidence in ourselves," she said.

It was in 1945 when Griffith heard about the need for defense workers of all types on the West Coast to work at the Hunter's Point Navy shipyard in California.

Having received clearance, she packed up her belongings and was ready to leave in just a matter of weeks when she was stricken with severe arthritis.

Hospitalized and suffering, doctors said she might never walk again.

"I was in such terrible pain. I sometimes would cry under my pillow so the woman in the bed next to mine wouldn't hear," said Griffith.

Not ready to accept being an invalid, Griffith checked herself out of the hospital and left to stay with her parents in Sharpsburg.

Slowly, with determination, Griffith battled her disease with her own physical therapy and won.

She and her daughters left for San Francisco as scheduled, where she worked until the end of the war. Then she returned to Maryland and Martin-Marietta.

Through her many years as a defense worker, the physical labor took its toll on Griffith. Her knee and both hips were replaced and cataracts removed from her eyes.

Griffith said her jobs were hard but rewarding.

"They never would have won the war without us," she said.

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