Born and raised in Newnan, Georgia, Bert M. Atkinson attended Georgia Military College and the University of Georgia. Commissioned in the United States Army in 1911, he served with the Fifth Infantry at Plattsburg, New York. While he was stationed in the Philippines in 1914, the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps was created. The following year, Atkinson entered the United States Army Signal Corps Aviation School at North Island, San Diego, California, where he became good friends with Carl Spaatz, who later became the first Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force in 1947. Atkinson qualified for the Aero Club of America pilot license in March of 1916, and received the Junior Military Aviator rating and promotion to First Lieutenant. He was subsequently assigned to the 1st Aero Squadron at Columbus, New Mexico, a part of Brigadier General John J. Pershing's Mexican Punitive Expedition engaged in the campaign to capture Pancho Villa. While there, he became the squadron's adjutant. Later assigned to Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he was the first pilot to land in the cotton fields outside San Antonio, Texas, which became Kelly Field, the mobilization base for American airpower.
Atkinson was one of twenty-six qualified aviators assigned to the Aviation Section of the Signal Corps when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Promoted to captain that year, he organized and commanded the 4th Aero Squadron. By September, he was promoted to Major, with responsibility for movement of ten squadrons to Europe. In 1918, he led the 1st Pursuit Group, America's first multi-squadron fighter group, from Paris to the French Acrodronie at Villeneuve-les-Vertus where they built barracks, roads, and other facilities. The 1st Pursuit Group, the only pursuit group to fight in all of America's campaigns during the war fighting against the better-equipped Germans, also produced the Air Service's first aces. In August of 1918, Atkinson became wing commander of the 1st Pursuit Wing during the San Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives under Billy Mitchell, the Air Service's Senior Tactical Commander.After the war, Lieutenant Colonel Atkinson was given command of Mather Field, Sacramento, California where he organized the first aerial forest fire fighting unit and assisted the US Air Mail Service in establishing its transcontinental air routes. From 1924 to 1933, he served as Assistant Adjutant General of the State of Florida. Lieutenant Colonel Atkinson was cited for service with the United States and received the Purple Heart; France awarded him the Croix de Guerre with Palm and the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier); Belgium decorated him with the Order of Leopold and the Belgium War Cross.
In recognition of his distinguished contributions to the field of aviation, Lieutenant Colonel Bert M. Atkinson was enshrined into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame on February 14, 2009.