The 463rd Bomb Group, with its four squadrons 772nd, 773rd, 774th, 775th Bomb Squadrons of the Fifteenth Air Force, was based at Celone Airfield, Italy. Celone airfield was a semi-permanent airfield located approximately 6 miles north of the Foggia Airfield complex and had a 6,000 foot pierced steel plated runway. B-17s of the 463rd Bombardment Group and Liberator Mk.VI's of 2 (SAAF) Wing (31 (SAAF) Sqn and 34 (SAAF) Sqn) were based at the airfield between 9 March 1944 and 25 September 1945. The group flew missions against railroad bridges, marshaling yards and airdromes in the Balkans.
On 13 February 1945, 1st Lt. Philip Kelley Whitman volunteered to be pilot for the mission that day because the crew’s regular pilot, Lt. Harris, was ill. Whitman, flying his 33rd sortie, and his crew of the B-17G aircraft 44-6163 flew on mission 166 to the supply depot at Vienna, Austria. Just prior to bombs away, the aircraft encountered flak and sustained a direct hit to the number 4 engine which severed the engine from the wing. A gaping hole was left in the wing and number three engine was on fire. With engine one and two still functioning, Whitman immediately peeled away from the formation and attempted to turn back. Controlling the damaged aircraft was very difficult. Because of the confusion of the attack, Whitman was unable to communicate with his crew or his co-pilot Drake. Whitman reached over and touched Drake. Drake took this to mean bail out and he proceeded to bail. Others in the crew also bailed out. Whitman was the last to leave the aircraft and he kicked open the forward escape hatch, went out head first but found himself caught, his back pushed against the fuselage. The fire in number three engine continued to spread and finally burnt a fuel line which caused a powerful explosion, freeing Whitman and sending hem falling to the earth. He was able to pull the rip cord and deploy his parachute.
Whitman landed in a group of pine trees. With his pocket knife, he cut the parachute loose, freed himself and climbed down the large pines and dropped into tow feet of snow. He electric warming boots had fallen off and he had no shoes on his feet. He began to fashion same foot ware out of his Mae West. As he looked up from his work, he saw some local farmers. These farmers gave his some shoes and let him sleep in the hay for his first cold night.
Five of the crew bailed out successfully and five were killed-in-action. The aircraft crashed near Schutzen, Austria. There were a total of 38 planes on the mission that day and only the Whitman crew was lost. Missing Air Crew Report 12109 was filed after the crew failed to return to their base.