A native of Clay County, Kentucky, Bertram Thomas Combs, the son of Stephen Gibson and Martha (Jones) Combs, was born in Manchester on August 13, 1911. He graduated first in his class at Clay County High School and then proceeded to Cumberland College. For the next three years he worked as a clerk in the state highway department in order to continue his education. He graduated with the LL.B. degree in 1937 from the University of Kentucky Law School, ranking second in his class and receiving the medal of the Order of the Coif.
After being admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1937, he practiced law for one year in Manchester and then moved his law practice to Prestonburg, Kentucky. During World War II, Combs enlisted in the Army as a private, and worked his way to the rank of captain, serving on Douglas MacArthur's staff in the South Pacific. After the war as chief of the investigating section of the War Crimes Department in the Philippine Islands, Combs assisted in the trial and prosecution of Japanese was criminals. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Medal of Merit upon his discharge in 1946.
Upon returning to private practice in Prestonburg, Judge Combs became a partner in Howard & Combs. He stayed there until 1951, serving as city and commonwealth's attorney for the 31st judicial district. In April of 1951, he was appointed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals and later was elected to a full eight-year term on the Court of Appeals. However, he resigned in 1955 to seek the Democratic nomination for governor but lost the primary to A. B. "Happy" Chandler. In 1959, he again sought the Democratic nomination for governor and won the primary and the election. Upon completion of his term as governor of Kentucky in 1963 he returned to private practice.
On April 5, 1967, he was appointed Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit by President Lyndon B. Johnson. On June 5, 1970, Judge Combs resigned his lifetime appointment to make a run for another term as Kentucky Governor. When defeated in that race by Wendell Ford, later a U. S. Senator, he joined a Louisville law firm which became Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs.
Judge Combs has served as chairman of the Board of Regents of the Eastern Kentucky Historical Society, a trustee of Campbellsville College, and is a member of the Kentucky and American Bar Associations, the American Legion, the Kiwanis and Lions Clubs.
Judge Combs was married three times. He and first wife, Mabel Hall had two children. They were divorced in 1969 and he later married Helen C. Rechtin. On December 30, 1988, he married his law assistant, Sara Walter Combs, who later became a judge on the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
Judge Combs died of hypothermia on December 4, 1991, a day after his car was swept from a roadway by floodwaters near Rosslyn, Kentucky, in Powell County into the flooded Red River. He was buried in Manchester, Kentucky.