In October 1944, after repairs at the naval base at Manus Island in the Admiralty Islands, USS White Plains headed for the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte. The initial assault went forward on 20 October. Aircraft from White Plains provided air support for the troops and ASW and combat air patrols for the ships assembled in Leyte Gulf. However, because of the strategic importance of the Philippines which lay athwart their lines of communication with the East Indies, the Japanese chose to oppose the landings with their surface fleet. They launched their surface counterattack in three distinct phases. While a decoy force of carriers under Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa moved south from Japan in an attempt to draw off Halsey's Third Fleet and the large carriers, the forces under Vice Admirals Shōji Nishimura and Kiyohide Shima attempted to force the Surigao Strait from the south, and Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita's Center Force tried to sneak through the Central Philippines and transit the hopefully unguarded San Bernardino Strait. The Center Force, by far the strongest of the enemy fleets involved, consisted of five battleships - including the huge superbattleships Yamato and Musashi - 11 heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and 19 destroyers. By the time Kurita's Center Force cleared the San Bernardino Strait on 25 October, it had been reduced by four heavy cruisers and the battleship Musashi. Three heavy cruisers had fallen prey to American submarine attacks in Palawan Passage on 23 October, and Musashi and Myōkō succumbed to Task Force 38's air attacks in the Sibuyan Sea on the following day. Musashi sank there, and Myōkō headed back to Brunei Bay, heavily damaged. In addition, on the night of 24 October and 25 October, Vice Admiral Oldendorf's old battleships in Leyte Gulf obliterated Nishimura's force and sent Shima's packing.

After Admiral Halsey received information indicating that a battered Center Force had begun retirement, Ozawa's decoy force finally managed to draw the American carriers off to the north. However, Kurita's retrograde movement proved to be only temporary, and he once again reversed course and headed back toward San Bernardino Strait. With Oldendorf regrouping his warships in Leyte Gulf and Halsey off chasing the Japanese Navy's aircraft carriers, only three Task Groups—composed of escort carriers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts—remained off Samar island between Kurita and Leyte Gulf. USS White Plains was an element of "Taffy 3," the northmost of the three Task Groups, and the one which bore the brunt of Kurita's surface onslaught. "Taffy 3", commanded by Rear Admiral Clifton Sprague, first learned of Kurita's presence when, at 0637, a pilot on routine air patrol spotted Kurita's task force and attacked it with depth charges. Rear Admiral Sprague was incredulous about the presence of the Japanese Navy, and he demanded identification verification—which came, disconcertingly enough, when the enemy battleships' pagoda-style masts loomed over the horizon.

Yamato opened fire at 0659 at an estimated range of 34,544 yards, targeting White Plains with her first four salvoes. Yamato's third salvo was a close straddle landing at 07:04. One shell from this salvo exploded beneath the turn of White Plains port bilge near frame 142, near her aft (starboard) engine room. While the ship was not struck directly, the mining effect of the under-keel explosion severely damaged her hull, deranged her starboard machinery and tripped all of the circuit breakers in her electrical network. Prompt and effective damage control restored power and communications within three minutes and she was able to remain in formation by overspeeding her port engine to compensate. Fortunately the black smoke resulting from the sudden loss of boiler intake air pressure convinced Yamato and Nagato (which was also firing her main battery at White Plains at the time) that they had scored a direct hit and they shifted fire to other targets. For the next two and one-half hours, the Japanese force chased "Taffy 3" southward and subjected the escort carriers and their counterattacking screen to a heavy-caliber cannonade. The aircraft carriers' warplanes fought back, even making dummy runs on the Japanese ships to slow the ships' speed of advance after expending all their bombs, torpedoes, and ammunition.