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Tinker, Arms Dealer, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Mitchell L. WerBell III

by Mike Burns via RIA blog


His shadow has loomed over nearly every major global conflict over the past 75 years. He has been paid millions of dollars by Coca-Cola and Hustler Magazine, overthrown multiple communist regimes, and was there the day of the Kennedy assassination. Along with all of this, his suppressor designs revolutionized warfare and changed the world. The story of Mitchell L. WerBell III is one of brilliance, courage, and espionage. Prominent around the military intelligence community, WerBell makes Jack Bauer look like a toddler with a water gun. His service during World War II would help inspire the creation of the C.I.A., his contributions to the advancement of suppressor technology would change the modern concept of combat, and his experiences as a mercenary have enough weight to make skin crawl. An icon of his time and a true American legend, Mitchell WerBell’s life, inventions, and legacy continue to inspire and astonish to this day.

Early Life, World War II, and the O.S.S.

Mitchell Livingston Werbell III was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1918. The son of a Czarist cavalry officer in the Imperial Army of Russia, WerBell was exposed to the military at an early age and quickly grew an interest in it. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, WerBell enlisted in the army as a private and joined the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the predecessor agency to the C.I.A. This wartime agency was dedicated strictly to undercover, covert, and secret operations conducted behind enemy lines during World War II. In his duties, he acted as a guerrilla operative carrying out undercover missions in places like China, Burma, and French Indochina. According to the Wall Street Journal, WerBell and his fellow operatives were paid in five-pound sacks of opium following their involvements during classified expeditions in China. Author Henrik Krüger notes in his book, “The Great Heroin Coup,” that such trades were common during times of war among O.S.S. members and Chinese leaders. This payment option would hold value regardless of governmental or currency changes.

“Amid the chaos of war, opium and gold became the primary media of exchange, and cult-like bonds were forged among a small staff of Americans and high-ranking Chinese. Yunnan was a center of Chinese opium cultivation and Kunming was the hotbed of military operations, among them Claire Chennault’s 14th Air Force and Detachment 202 of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.).”

-Henrik Krüger

American Military recruitment poster referencing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

During this time of clandestine operations and secret assignments, WerBell was introduced to the suppressed and unconventional weapons that would later make him infamous in the intelligence community. Experience throughout the war would grant him complete knowledge on the weaponry used in special operations and the key elements to staying hidden behind enemy lines. Author Gaeton Fonzi notes that WerBell’s prolonged service and success during these missions would induct him into the “superspy fraternity” that included other prominent military leaders of the time such as Everette Howard Hunt Jr.,one of the men responsible for plotting the Nixon Watergate scandal. Along with this new network of contacts, resources, and partners, WerBell also gained the attention of other entities in the United States military that would not soon forget the bravery and advanced technical knowledge he displayed throughout his service.

Artist Stuart Brown’s depiction of an O.S.S. guerrilla operation in Burma.

WerBell continued to serve in the U.S. Army even after the O.S.S. was disbanded in 1945, however, he would not stay for long. Compared to the excitement of guerrilla warfare and secret missions, the systematic and routine nature of commanding an infantry company was extraordinarily mundane for a soldier of his experience and skill set. He shortly resigned from service and returned home to start his own business.

Birth of SIONICS

Mac-10 sub machine gun fitted with a WerBell designed suppressor. 

With the passion for weapons development still not entirely quenched, WerBell returned back into the world of firearms to help design suppressors for machine guns for use after World War II. Using his experience and knowledge gained from his time in the O.S.S., WerBell started his own development company called SIONICS sometime during the 1960’s. Short for Studies in Operational Negation of Insurgency and Counter-Subversion, SIONICS was initially tasked with producing a low cost, effective suppressor for the M14 and M16 rifle. Along with pioneering entirely new suppressors specifically for machine guns, WerBell also crafted methods and modifications to configure existing silencers to fit a wide number of different firearms such as bolt actions, High Standard pistols, and Smith & Wesson M76 submachine guns. WerBell is personally credited with over 25 different suppressor designs that he produced during his experimentation at SIONICS. Later, WerBell and SIONICS would partner with Gordon B. Ingram, the inventor of the MAC-10 submachine gun, to collaborate on designing and manufacturing weapons that incorporated both aspects of their inventions for the United States Army. Ingram’s SMG was paired with WerBell’s suppressor and marketed as “the Whispering Death.” Supplied to an undisclosed number of soldiers in Vietnam during the war for “combat evaluation,” these firearms were never officially adopted into the military.

The Cobray Company logo.

WerBell remained tethered to SIONICS for the rest of his life. Although it would eventually be incorporated into the Military Armament Corporation (later renamed the Cobray Company), WerBell continued leading and developing numerous counterterrorism training programs meant for high-risk executives, C.I.A. operatives, and private individuals throughout the 70’s and early 80’s. Many of the tactics and teachings used by WerBell at the Cobray School are still extensively used for military training and personal protection education today. The Cobray Company changed its name to Leinad following legal troubles in the 1990’s and closed several years ago; however, the “Cobray” trademark is registered to a privately owned company in the U.S. that sells Cobray replacement parts and accessories.

Soldier of Fortune Magazine discussing Mitch WerBell and the Cobray School.

At one point during his time working as an instructor for the Cobray School, WerBell ventured to Argentina to meet with officials from the Coca-Cola Company. Threatened by Argentinian communist groups ravaging the country at the time, Coca-Cola sought WerBell to assist in training, arming, and protecting high-level executives in the country from kidnappings or other risks using skills taught at the Cobray School. WerBell claimed in a 20/20 interview in 1979 that he was paid upwards of $1,000,000 to “take care of kidnapping threats made against Argentinian executives.” While Coca-Cola rejects this, WerBell’s experiences and proximity to the events of the time cast serious suspicion on these denials. In response to Coca-Cola’s repudiation, WerBell simply noted, “Coca-Cola hasn’t had anybody kidnapped lately.”

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