Nebraska's 1940 football season was a rousing success. The Cornhuskers won the Big Six, going 5-0 in conference, and finishing the regular season 8-1, the only loss coming against Minnesota at the beginning of the season.
The season was good enough to earn Nebraska their first-ever bowl game, a trip to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl. On January 1st, 1941, the Cornhuskers came up against the "Wow Boys" a nickname given to the Stanford Indians (as they were known at the time) and head coach Clark Shaugnessy's newfangled T-formation. The result was a 21-13 loss, but Nebraska fans weren't upset by the loss. They turned up in droves to meet the team when they returned on the train. The Cornhuskers only losses that season were to #1 Minnesota and #2 Stanford. Nebraska finished ranked #7.
The 1941 season was not as successful, mostly due to the loss of 19 seniors from the previous season. The 1941 season would end at 4-5 and a second-place finish in the Big Six behind Oklahoma. After winning the first two games of the season, the team suffered five consecutives losses before winning it's last two, including a 7-6 win over Oklahoma on November 29th.
Only a few days later, the world changed. On December 7th, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II. Nebraska's head coach, Biff Jones, who had been at the school since 1937 and compiled a 28-14-4 record, would be called back to the Army to serve as graduate manager of athletics at West Point.
Nebraska sent 139,754 men and women to war. They served in every branch of the service-army, navy, coast guard, marines, and army air corps. 3,839 lost their lives.
The result was that Nebraska was drained of able-bodied men called away to save the world from destruction (one of these would be my father, James Curtis Johnston of Curtis, Nebraska). Jones was replaced by former assistant Glenn Presnell with the idea that Jones would return to his position when the war ended.
During the war years, Nebraska's teams consisted of 4F's (a designation given to men who were not fit for active duty), men who were not of age to register for the draft and those who were waiting for their draft number to be called. A 1944 Nebraska Yearbook contains a nutshell the events from 1940-1944.
When the war ended, Jones never returned to Nebraska, but chose to stay at West Point. As a result, Nebraska would spend nearly two decades trying to find a coach who could bring the Cornhuskers back to winning. However, coaching wasn't the only problem. At that time, Nebraska didn't recruit outside the borders much (if at all) and the University of Nebraska didn't have ties to the armed services, both of which hurt the football teams' chances at success.
In the years from 1941-1962, Nebraska had two winning seasons, went through seven coaches and compiled a 68-120-4 record for a .354 win percentage. That would change in 1962 with the arrival of Bob Devaney.
For an excellent (and fun) resource on Nebraska's football history, see Mike Babcock's Nebraska Football Vault.