Artists are finishing work on a new bronze Vietnam veterans' memorial plaque that will replace the original 1969 monument that was stolen in December from Petaluma's Walnut Park.

A group of Petaluma youths who watched their friends and brothers go off to Vietnam and never return organized the community 44 years ago to create and install a plaque with the names of those killed.

Sometime in December, someone made off with the approximately 2-foot-by-2-foot plaque, apparently for its scrap metal value. It was pried or cut from a stone and concrete pedestal near the park's gazebo.

The theft rocked veterans, families of the soldiers killed in the war and members of a community that honors its veterans each year with the largest Veterans Day parade north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In replacing the memorial, organizers strived to retain the spirit of the original design, created by renowned local artist Rosa Estebanez.

The new plaque mirrors the first, as Maureen Francis -- a student of Estebanez -- sculpted a relief of the map of Vietnam with a pair of hands in prayer over it. Below, bronze sculptor Virginia Harrison will place medallions of the military branches and the raised names of 15 Petalumans who died fighting.

The pieces will be assembled and next week will be sent to a foundry in San Rafael where the bronze casting will be completed.

Securing the bronze against theft was key in planning the new design, said organizer Ed Hergert, who played a vital role in the 1969 memorial effort.

The half-inch thick plaque will be inset in a 4-inch thick granite casing, then attached through the granite into the concrete pedestal. Black slate will be installed around the base, which will be several inches higher than the original.

Francis, a member of the Petaluma Valley Rotary Club, was already active in her service club's drive to revamp the landscaping around the gazebo when the plaque was stolen.

Having taken art classes from Estebanez, she volunteered to re-create the memorial in its original spirit. The Rotary Club was already working on a landscaping replanting plan to include a red, white and blue color theme.

The club also will install a bench on the west side of the gazebo in memory of Petaluma resident Ron Flagg, a Purple Heart recipient who died last year.

The new memorial also will include poles for the American and Prisoner of War flags.

About $10,000 was donated toward the cause, said Petaluma Museum President Joe Noriel, who helped organize veterans and community members immediately after the theft.

"What was a tragedy is going to wind up as something amazing, even better that what we started with," he said.

Hergert, too, said the theft has created some positive byproducts.

"It was sickening for a while," he said of the weeks following the incident. "But all this madness just became so much better. People got back in touch with people they'd hadn't seen in so long. It's actually become a good thing."

The group hopes to have a rededication ceremony on May 30, 44 years to the day from the original installation.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.